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 of the contemplative life.

Gregory learned a form of the contemplative life that drew from the gospels and the "father of monasticism," Antony of Egypt. It was also deeply influenced by Plato, Plotinus, and other Greek philosophers. In their pursuit of truth, these men had desired above all to see God—the ultimate Form behind the appearances of the world. To attain that "beatific vision," they had been willing to undergo intense discipline. Contemplation in the Greek and early Christian mode requires a certain distancing from the preoccupations of material life. As both Plato and Jesus taught, humans have a tendency to chase after temporary goods as if they were ultimate goods—a dangerous tendency that could easily lead a person to "gain the world but lose his soul." To see God, one must discipline oneself by turning away from such temporary goods of the world as sex, money, and (at least occasionally, during seasons of moderate fasting) food.

These things are still good, as Genesis teaches. But the person seeking God must make every effort to turn his eyes from such lesser things and toward the greater good, the pearl of great price, God himself. Few Christians in the ancient world, whether they enjoyed the monastic life or not, doubted that these efforts were worth it.

The Reluctant Pope

For three years, a period he later remembered as the happiest in his life, Gregory separated himself from worldly cares and pursued the contemplative path in his beloved monastery. But it was not to last. Pope Benedict I recognized a masterful administrator when he saw one, and he drew Gregory into various duties. Then, in the winter of 589-590, plague and famine struck (on top of the cyclical warfare that ravaged the disintegrating Roman Empire throughout Gregory's life), and Pope Benedict died.

Over his heartfelt protests, Gregory was elected the new pope.

Immediately, he was swamped with business as never before. It absorbed his hours, filled his thoughts, and troubled his heart. He wrote, "I am being smashed by many waves of affairs and afflicted by the storms of a life of tumults." But whatever the dangers to his soul, the new pope felt obliged to spend himself in labor for his people, healing and calming whom he could among a populace battered by war, plague, and famine. His heart still aching for the contemplative life of the monastery, the shepherd devoted himself to his sheep.

Through the agonizing necessity of entering the papacy and fulfilling it in a way that honored God, Gregory was forced to confront the defining issue of his life and ministry: the relationship between the contemplative life and the active life. The contemplative life was the ascetic and devotional ideal of the monastics. The active life was the Christian life of labor and everyday charity, lived in the midst of the world's distractions.

This was the "secular" life, which even parish priests and popes must live. "Secular," from the Latin saeculum, meant something like "this present generation." The parish priest had to deal daily with the actions and concerns of men and women who lived under their generation's peculiar pressures and temptations, while the cloistered monastic life focused on eternal concerns. Could these two lives be reconciled?

Contemplation and Service

In the first five months of his papacy, Gregory did two things that brought him to a resolution on this question. First, he took stock of his own life. And second, he wrote the book that would be "the most widely read single text in the history of pastoral care" for the next millennium: the Rule of Pastoral Care. In this process, Gregory forged a remarkable synthesis between the active and contemplative lives.

The biblical story that came alive for him was that of Rachel and Leah. The beautiful Rachel symbolized the contemplative life—Gregory's own first beloved—but she was infertile. Gregory had been forced to "marry" the less desirable Leah—that is, the life of active ministry. But Leah, not Rachel, was the one who bore most of the children. To put it another way, Rachel symbolized "spirit" and Leah "flesh." Christians had often misunderstood Paul's writings to mean that the spirit was always higher and better than the flesh (understood in platonic terms as the "worldly," the "material"), but Gregory moved quickly beyond this. He came to see, instead, that "one moves not only through the flesh to reach the spirit; one must return back again to the carnal to become truly spiritual." In the images of the biblical story, "Jacob begins with Leah, attains Rachel, and returns to Leah—activity precedes contemplation, but contemplation must be expressed in service to one's neighbor."

What Gregory concluded was that these two modes of life were not as mutually exclusive as the church had taught. Each strengthens the other in a never-ending cycle: the contemplative life equips us for the active life, and the active life grounds us in acts of love to our neighbors, to keep us from floating off into spiritual pride and irrelevance. Although we all, on earth, must live the active life (symbolized by Leah), we may anticipate the contemplative life (symbolized by Rachel). If we have any doubt of this dynamic, we need only look at the great epitome of this union of service and contemplation: the incarnate Christ.

No Second-Class Christians

This insight was nothing short of revolutionary. Sadly, the monastic legacy had increasingly come to be the possession of an elite few. There were two classes of Christian, with monks in the higher class, and "secular" (parish) clergy and married people clearly in the lower spiritual class. But by affirming the spiritual value of the active life, Gregory was breaking down that distinction and founding a new form of "this-worldly asceticism," accessible to all—from the busy bishop in his office to the married woman in her daily duties.

Gregory was quite simply saying that all of us, whether we are in the cloister, the church ministry, or the workaday world, can find ourselves at times in blessed contemplation of God. And when we do, we must not ever stay there: our souls and our effectiveness both depend on serving others, too.

Chris R. Armstrong is associate professor of church history at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.