Words on the Word

St Gregory the Great

The saint whom we in the west know as Gregory the Great is known in the Greek Church as Gregorios ho Dialogos. He is chiefly associated, that is, with his books of Dialogues, the second of which constitutes the Life of our father St Benedict. Once translated into Greek, the Dialogues became staple reading among both monks and laypeople. It may surprise us, for example, to find Gregory’s portrait of St Benedict cited as an example of contemplative perfection by that most Greek of all Greek theologians, St Gregory Palamas.

But let us pause for a brief moment to consider the Dialogues themselves. Gregory began work on them in 593, in his third year as pope, when southern Europe was in a state of turmoil. Lombard invaders were spreading chaos and destruction. Many people (including, it would seem, Gregory himself) assumed that the end of the world was near. With crises breaking out all around him, he embarked on the Dialogues, a collection of biographies of Italian saints. Why? Were there not more urgent tasks to attend to?
Gregory set to work, he tells us, on a day when he felt particularly depressed and overwhelmed by worldly business. In a conversation with the deacon Peter he spoke of his nostalgia for the spiritual aspirations of his youth, at which Peter noted what a pity it was that there were no models of Christian perfection from their own time and country. All saints seemed, somehow, to be foreign and long dead. Gregory rose to the challenge, for he did know of outstanding witnesses. And so, in order to counter barbarism, he decided to paint a series of portraits of Christ as he had revealed himself in the lives of men and women with whom his readers could identify.

In our day, Lombards present no cause for anxiety. But events this summer have shown us that barbarian forces are nonetheless close at hand. To renew our society we need more than just re-budgeting and larger prisons. We need a new sense of purpose, a new unifying energy; we need men and women whose goodness of life makes us spontaneously want to be like them. We could do worse than to follow Gregory’s example and seek out the saints of our own time, Christians who have followed Christ in the world as we know it, not in an idealised past. Inspired by their example, strengthened by their prayers, we shall gain courage to walk as they walked. And then, who knows, perhaps we can restore hope to our world, so tired of today, so afraid of tomorrow?