For those who think administrators are no more than "empty suits," with nothing to teach us spiritually, the early medieval Pope Gregory I ("the Great") is the great counter-example. Gregory (ca. 540-604) was a contemplative mystic at heart who struggled all of his days with the conflict between busyness and intimacy with Christ. And this struggle gave him great pastoral sympathy for a group of people who had become "second-class citizens" in Christendom: married layfolk. His meditations on the busy life—the life he associated both with Jesus' friend Martha and Jacob's wife Leah—led him to formulate a spiritual theology that blasted monastic elitism and freed busy laypeople to enjoy the contemplative life.

Discipline for the Greater Good

Raised in a family both pious and politically powerful, Gregory was still young when he was made prefect of Rome—that city's highest civic office. Though he had always read and meditated on Scripture, and at least a part of him had desired a closer relationship with God, his elevation to this position seemed to trigger a kind of revelation. Pressed down with the cares of the prefecture, he made a momentous decision: "I fled all this with anxiety. … Having left behind what belongs to the world … I escaped naked from the shipwreck of this life." In short, Gregory took oaths of obedience, poverty, and celibacy and became a monk. He would follow the ancient contemplative path to intimacy with God.

It is hard for many modern Christians to appreciate what being a monk meant to Gregory. We have very little sense of what went on in those early monasteries—of why anyone would want to spend their lives in one to begin with. In particular, we struggle with the meaning ...

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