The Gregory Option: St. Benedict in the World

Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 manifesto After Virtue famously ends with the argument that we are “waiting for another St. Benedict.”  At some point, the old Roman Empire was lost.  “Men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium.”  As they were led by the abbot Benedict of Nursia, so we too must turn to “the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.”

The election in 2005 of Pope Benedict XVI, who often cited Arnold Toynbee’s thesis that history is shaped by “creative minorities,” even as the culture around them crumbles, generated new enthusiasm for this thesis—though those who read medieval history might debate whether Benedict or Francis is the more fitting parallel for a post-Christian culture running on steam.

We can get better insight into the “Benedict option,” however, by thinking about St. Gregory the Great.  He died in 604, just over half a century after St. Benedict in 543. Gregory was the first Benedictine Pope and the popularizer of the life of St. Benedict, and he seems to be the primary reason that Benedict’s Rule prevailed over other early forms of monasticism in the West.

The role of St. Benedict in the West is perhaps misconstrued by an over-focus on his previous life as a hermit.  The creative-minority, “Benedict Option,” it might seem, is to withdraw from the culture, head for the hills, and give up on the world.

But St. Gregory complicates the picture.  To be sure, Gregory was radically Christian: a monk, a master of spirituality (perhaps the most important for the Middle Ages), profoundly invested in Scripture and the liturgy.  But he was no recluse.

The son of a Senator, after Gregory turned his family’s urban estate into a monastery, he was made Prefect, or chief secular governor of Rome, then Apocrisarius, or secular ambassador to the Imperial Court at Constantinople.  Once he became Pope, Gregory undertook, far beyond his legal authority, to secure a peace with the invading barbarians, and he organized a truly historic charitable relief effort for the victims of the barbarians.

Meanwhile, Gregory single-handedly rebuilt the missionary efforts of the Western Church, most notably by sending St. Augustine (later “of Canterbury”) from his own monastery in Rome to undertake the evangelization of England.  Gregory’s “Pastoral Rule,” the masterwork of its kind, demanded that Bishops exercise serious pastoral care for their flocks.  His liturgical reform created what we know as the Roman liturgy.

The monastic missionaries perhaps best illuminate the Gregorian model.  On the one hand, they were truly radical, devoted to intense community life, intense immersion in prayer and study of Scripture, and radical rejection of worldly values.  On the other hand, at the heart of Benedict’s Rule was the welcoming of guests; the monks (both Benedictine and Irish) converted Europe not by excluding the world, but by welcoming them into this radically Christian milieu.  It was there that the barbarians found a kind of life worth embracing.

It was in the monasteries, too, that the barbarians found real education, because the monks, for all their abandonment of the world, were the real scholars of their age, and kept alive classical pagan Roman culture when the rest of the world abandoned it.  (The finest book on this topic, the Benedictine Jean Leclercq’s 1957 The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, must surely be counted one of Pope Benedict’s favorites.)

This helps us understand why Pope Benedict, when he spoke about creative minorities, would speak not of withdrawal from the culture, but of education, dialogue, and charity.  The monks were uncompromising in their Christianity—but for precisely that reason they were also vigorous evangelizers, vigorously committed to rebuilding the West.  True, in a dark age when the cities had fallen into ruin, many Benedictine monasteries were in the countryside.  But they built their own cities – and Gregory the Great, their great hero, was a man of the old metropolis, deeply embedded in the culture, even as he radically pursued the Christian way.

Two of his greatest written works further illustrate the Gregory Option.  His commentary on Job, one of the most important books on morality and spirituality for the age that followed, was written while he was ambassador to Constantiople.  In the great secular, imperial city, Gregory became a fabulously popular spiritual guide and a vigorous witness to the life-giving truth of Sacred Scripture.  His commentary on Ezekiel, meanwhile, perhaps an even more important source for the mysticism of the Middle Ages, was popular preaching on Scripture to the ordinary people of Rome as the Lombard barbarians advanced on the city.  Nero fiddled while Rome burned, but Gregory defended Rome by promoting a deep, and deeply Christian, spirituality, in the heart of the city.

We can see the ultimate influence of Gregory in his namesake, Pope St. Gregory VII (d. 1085).  Before his election to the papacy, Hildebrand, like Gregory the Great before him, was a monk but also chief administrator of the city of Rome and ambassador to the great cities of the age.  Elected pope, he took the name of Gregory and waged one of the great battles of Church history, the Investiture Controversy, in which he rended the authority to name bishops away from the secular authorities, repeatedly confronted the secular Emperor, and fought for reform of the morals of the clergy.  Radically Christian did not mean withdrawing from society, but fighting for the Church’s authentic leading role within it.

Growing out of the Benedictine movement of Cluny, Gregory gave birth to the great evangelical revival of Sts. Francis (d. 1226), Dominic (d. 1221), Bonaventure (d. 1274), and Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) by insisting that the Church be insistently what it is—including vigorously engaged with society.  The Benedictine Pope Gregory VII never accepted society’s terms, never, as MacIntyre says, merely “shored up” the Roman imperium, but fought for “civility and the intellectual and moral life” in an uncompromisingly Christian and Benedictine mode.  But that did not mean giving up on the world around him.

Sts. Gregory the Great and Gregory VII are the Benedict Option, the immediate and long-term fruit of St. Benedict’s own option, and the leaders of two of history’s greatest “creative minorities.”  They did not shore up the Roman imperium, they rebuilt it, by living radical Christianity in the heart of the world.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “St. Gregory the Great” painted by Francisco de Goya between 1797 and 1799.

Eric Johnston

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Eric Johnston is a father of five who teaches theology at Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology at Seton Hall University. His principal work is on Thomas Aquinas's theology of marriage, as well as related topics in social thought and the theology of nature and grace. He blogs on spiritual theology at professorjohnston.com.

  • sonny

    A spiritual journey from Nursia to Subiaco to one’s personal avowal of “conversio morum” is open to a plenitude of intermediate forms that are there for the prayer of petition of the faithful Christian. (… that in all things God be glorified)

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