“But in the midst of these considerations, we are brought back in the zeal of charity to what we have already said, which is that every preacher should be “heard” more his deeds than by his words…before any words of exhortation, they should proclaim by their actions everything that they wish to say.”
St. Gregory the Great’s Book of Pastoral Rule describes, in four sections, the individual qualities necessary for pastoral work, the ordering of a pastor’s life, the methods by which he ought to preach, and the necessity of self-examination (or “return”). Gregory opens his book with a close look at the individual qualities to be sought (and avoided) in pastors. He follows with a description of a pastor’s life - those habits and tendencies which either threaten or assist in his work. Having identified the ideal person and way of life, St. Gregory explains how he ought to teach. He creates an inventory of personalities based on opposites - the meek and the easily provoked, for example. Each of these demands a unique approach and method of counsel, and this section beautifully illustrates the deep understanding he has of the individual. He concludes with a brief call to the pastor to return to himself, recollecting his own weaknesses as a remedy to any pride that may arise as a result of his work. Though written in the sixth century, Gregory’s book is rightly considered a classic and has much to say to modern clergy in general and to deacons in particular.
Gregory weaves several themes through the book which reduce to the following, namely that a pastor is a certain kind of person, who lives a certain way, and knows the people before him in a particular and intimate way. Moreover, he is able to encounter them as individuals, with their own particular needs, wounds, and motives. In this way, a good pastor is able to meet people where they are and speak to them in ways that they might hear best. Though some of his advice is not applicable in the modern period, much of it shows how constant many elements of human nature really are.
In the first section, Gregory outlines various undesirable qualities in those seeking to undertake pastoral work: they should be experienced, comfortable in leadership roles, able to put into practice what has been studied (and preached). In short ‘he must be a model for everyone…devoted to the example of good living…dead to the passions of the flesh and live a spiritual life.’ (p.43) In short, his life must be ordered towards Christ and not the pattern of the world. There is room for neither a desire for the honor that attaches to the role nor a reluctance to take it up because of fear or unhealthy detachment.
The deacon is configured in a special way towards Christ the Servant, and he is able to move and work in places that priests or bishops cannot - in workplaces, schools, and within families. Working closely in and among the people, a deacon is able to bring his life experience to bear in his sacramental work. He is expected to lead a spiritual life and integrate his various roles - father, husband, worker - into a unified ministry. These expectations presuppose that he can and that he’s been called by God to do so - certainly, the periods of discernment are meant to explore this very thing.
Pastors are to be ‘first in service,’ modeling for others in their own lives what they ask of their flock. St. Gregory expresses a tension between a life in the world and the pull to monastic contemplation. On the one hand, pastors are called to be contemplative in nature, living closely to Scripture, meditating ‘daily on the precepts of the sacred Word.’ At the same time, he warns against withdrawing so far from the world as to be out of reach and goes on at length about the importance of addressing the physical needs of those in his care. In a contest between the two, Gregory favors engagement and direct service of others, among others. This closely comports with the mission of the permanent deacon which is ordered towards charity towards others ‘in every stratum of society’ as a result of his liturgical participation. In other words - everything a deacon does is in service to the others and their sanctification. This demands a deep life of prayer, and Gregory points the way to contemplation and lectio divina. We’re not to lose ourselves completely in it, though. Deacons are not called to a cloistered life of prayer, but to a radical engagement with the world. This engagement must be leavened with prayer, however, or the engagement becomes pure activity confined to the temporal world, divorced from the spiritual and ultimately impoverished.
St. Gregory has a keen sense of psychology and leans on it to show how a pastor should advise individuals. He understands what makes people tick, and deftly identifies extremes of behavior by landing on the vice or sin at their mutual root. His insights, seen even across the centuries, are deeply humane and reflect his love for others and his desire to see them made whole and brought back to the fold. These are the teachings of someone who knows people well and has studied them at length. No one is beyond the reach or cast aside; there is a remedy for each. Where there is more than one problem to contend with, he wisely advises triage: focus on the more dangerous sin and leave the others to one side for the moment.
I will confess that I had some difficulty with the book in the earlier sections, but was thoroughly grabbed by the final eight dyads which treat pairs of sins - those who deplore sins of action and those who deplore sins of thought, for example. The sins themselves are not important, only patterns of life that surround them, patterns which, driven by individual habits and tendencies, require different pastoral approaches. As a result, his advice is applicable today as it was in the sixth century. I’m not sure if this is a tribute to his insight into the human condition or a statement on the relative sameness of people over the centuries. I suspect it is equal parts both. I attempted to read a similar book several years ago - The Spiritual Life by Adolphe Tanqueray. It was a difficult go; I didn’t finish it. I can imagine possibly returning to it in the future if I want to understand a remedy for a particular situation, but I will most certainly be checking with St. Gregory beforehand.
One thing I noticed is that his book is purely focused on pastoral work with individuals (after solving for the pastor himself of course). There is nothing explicit here about sacraments, liturgy, or theology, but his book is deeply theological and only minimally systematic. God is our greatest good and the pastor shoulders the responsibility for guiding the flock to safety. The shepherd should be formed a certain way and live a certain life, mindful of himself and the role he plays as a spiritual builder of the people around him. He is bound to them closely and cannot ignore their material needs or disappear into detached contemplation in pursuit of his own ends.
In this way, pastoral work is deeply eucharistic - it occupies a vertical axis between Jesus Christ, the pastor himself, and the flock. It also by necessity lives horizontally: in and among the people in all of their stations of life, weaknesses, and beauty. This is the essence of the diaconate, as I understand it. Gregory’s insights on the qualities of a pastor assume a priest but I saw very little here that wasn’t supportive of the modern understanding of a permanent deacon.
St. Gregory places a tremendous emphasis on the interior life of the pastor; it’s clear to me that the same holds for any pastor and perhaps a little more for a deacon living simultaneous family, professional, and ministerial lives. Though we are called to unify these roles, we must also acknowledge that each demands unique responses. All the more reason to reach for a solid interior foundation on which to stand. Having worked backward in time a bit for some of my personal reading, it’s not difficult to pick out the streams of asceticism (and equally penetrating psychology) of the desert fathers and their spiritual descendants - Evagrius, Cassian, Benedict, and others - feeding Gregory’s thought. It’s becoming clearer to me that interior life and contemplative forms of prayer are going to be critical to my discernment and continued formation. Clearer still is the importance of a greater recovery of these spiritual treasures for others.