Thursday, May 19, 2011

Clerical Asceticism

This historiated initial contains a bust portrait of a haloed figure, probably intended to be St. Gregory the Great, carrying a cross and a book. It appears in the Saint Petersburg Bede (Saint Petersburg, National Library of Russia, lat. Q. v. I. 18), which is famous for containing the earliest such initial in European illumination.
St. Gregory the Great was first a monk and, in some respects, this remained his ideal, yet he was a monk who willingly submitted to the decision of Pope Pelagius II to pluck him from his monastery so that he could serve in the ordained ministry. His own willing response to this became a model of his ministerial ideal expressed in his Book of Pastoral Rule (PR), in which he sought a life of balance between asceticism and serving others in the world. For Gregory, a cleric, like a monk, must have ascetic experience, must embrace suffering and adversity, must struggle to overcome passions and vice, and must become dispassionate and virtuous. Gregory’s advice in these areas is of enduring value in the present age. “How he may please the Lord,” (1Cor 7:32) must always be the cleric’s first concern and the cleric is one called by the Lord to a balance of withdrawal from the world and service to those in it. It seems that, for Gregory, one of “the things of this world” that should not distract the cleric from his vocation is concern for “how he may please his wife” (1Cor 7:33). One aspect of his balance of asceticism with service is his advocacy of clerical continence. Though not addressed directly in the Book of Pastoral Rule, his opinion on the matter is clear enough. Elsewhere, (Epistles I, 44 and IV, 36) he promotes a rule of clerical continence and within this text he speaks negatively of sexual desire (PR III, 27). Even here he seeks a balance however and refers to the state of marriage as “most honorable” (PR III, 27). Further, he makes much use of bridal imagery in his descriptions of clerical life. This too is in keeping with the monastic tradition, which often makes similar use of this imagery.

St. Gregory the Theologian, 12th-century mosaic. Pendant on the eastern arch (northern side) of the crossing of the transept, La Martorana, also known as Santa Maria dell'Ammiraglio in Palermo, Sicily. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons
Gregory’s ideal of balanced clerical asceticism had some precedent. The numerous parallels between Gregory the Great and Gregory the Theologian, and the latter’s influence on the former, bear some mention. Biographically of note, both descended from clerics, in fact from bishops. Gregory the Theologian’s father was the bishop of Nazianzus. Gregory the Great’s great-great grandfather was the bishop of Rome, Pope Felix III. This is especially interesting given the preference both seem to exhibit for clerics following a quasi-monastic way of life, which tends to exclude the prospect of progeny. Had their ancestors strictly held to this ideal, they might have deprived world of its eloquent exposition. In seeking a way of life that balances clerical duties with such ascetic practices, Gregory the Great follows the Theologian, in many respects, who, perhaps, was among the first to advocate a life of quasi-monastic withdrawal from the world for clerics, or at least for himself, in his Defense of his Flight to Pontus. Gregory the Great is clearly familiar with this writing, and references it more than once in his own work on ordained ministry, the Book of Pastoral Rule, notably at the beginnings of parts one and three.

Following this model, then, Gregory systematically – “as if step-by-step,” he writes (PR, Letter) – expounds on the life of a cleric as a balance of the internal and the external, of the ascetical and the ministerial, of the religious and the secular. The Book of Pastoral Rule is composed of four parts. The first deals with who should and who should not seek or accept ordination. The second deals with how ordained clerics should live and guide those under their care. The third and longest part deals with how ordained clerics should teach and minister to each of many kinds of people. The fourth very briefly reminds ordained clerics to flee arrogance and maintain humility before God, especially as they excel in the practice of virtue to the degree that Gregory insists a cleric must. Throughout, Gregory seeks the middle way, almost the Aristotelian mean, for clerics, who he says should neither be too severe nor too lax, neither too negligent of secular cares nor too invested in them.

Ascetic renunciation of the pleasures of this world – for example, excesses of food, sleep, possessions, and sex – does not have the condemnation of these things as its goal, but rather the cultivation of virtues and true freedom from the enslaving passions. Gregory considers those who have thus labored and acquired these “incredible virtues” (PR I, 5) the most suitable for ordination. “Men who are spotless in the pursuit of chastity, stout in the vigor of fasting, satiated in the feasts of doctrine, humble in the long-suffering of patience, erect in the fortitude of authority, tender in the grace of kindness, and strict in the severity of judgment” are the ones worthy of advancement to “a position of spiritual leadership” (PR I, 5). Suffering, fasting, and chastity form part of the ascetic discipline necessary to acquire virtues such as humility, kindness, and judgment. Kindness and “severity of judgment” are virtues of contrary purpose – each is needed to balance the other, which is just the thing Gregory emphasizes throughout his Book of Pastoral Rule. In his view, the only way to acquire such a perfect balance of virtues is through ascetic effort, which involves a certain degree of withdrawal from the secular world.

In one of the first of many allegorical interpretations of Scripture found in the Book of Pastoral Rule, Gregory identifies secular life and worldly habits with vice – especially vicious when exhibited by an ordained cleric, whom others are liable to imitate. Referring to Matthew 18:6, he writes, “The ‘millstone’ symbolizes the circuitousness and labor of the secular life,” which can drag a cleric down to “the ‘depth of the sea’ [which] suggests final damnation” (PR I, 2). Gregory does not want clerics to utterly cut themselves off from secular concerns, as he demonstrates later, but here he makes it clear that they are dangerous occasions of vice if overindulged to the neglect of “the study of holy meditation”(PR I, 2).

Gregory often repeats that there is a need to embrace the adversities of life and shun prosperity because the latter tends to bind a soul to worldly things to the neglect of God. Gregory writes that Jesus’ rejection of earthly kingship and embrace of the cross was meant to teach his followers “to value adversity for the sake of truth, and to decline prosperity fearfully. This final concern [i.e. prosperity] often corrupts the heart through pride, while adversities purge it through suffering” (PR I, 3). While allegorizing about the Ephod robe of the Jewish priest, Gregory later tempers this by acknowledging that there is some need for protection from adversity as well as from prosperity. Protection from both comes to the priest from “the ornament of virtue” (PR II, 3). The virtuous cleric should neither “be elated by prosperity, nor dismayed by adversity. Let not flatterers soften his resolve, nor the cruel lead him to despair, so that by not cowering to the passions, he will display the great beauty of the Ephod that covers both his shoulders.” The realities of a cleric’s life put him in daily contact with both flatterers and the cruel and so he must possess the proper virtues for responding to both kinds of people. Adversities and offerings of prosperity are a part of every person’s daily life, perhaps the cleric even more so, and so the cleric must learn to regard adversities as ascetic opportunities for spiritual growth and offerings of prosperity as temptations to abandon the heart of his vocation. For example, a pastor must not preach simply to please the biggest donors to his parish, but must fearlessly proclaim the gospel, even if it results, as it often does, in a certain degree of adversity.

For the most part, this is the kind of asceticism Gregory has in mind for clerics: that of an ascetic attitude toward daily life as it happens. His asceticism is not exactly the same as that of the monk who adds many labors to his life for the good of his spiritual progress, but is rather more pragmatic and balanced – a willing embrace of the sufferings found in each day – these are enough. For example, speaking of the proper way to teach people who are enduring bodily illnesses, Gregory encourages an ascetic embrace of such suffering. He writes, “The sick should be advised how beneficial bodily affliction can be, because it both cleanses sins already committed and prevents others from being accomplished. Moreover, by external lashes, bodily affliction inflicts the wounded mind with the wounds of penance” (PR III, 12). While Gregory speaks here of the purifying effect of lashes, he does not seem to recommend the ascetic discipline of flagellation or other self-inflicted physical penances. Rather, in characteristic moderation, he interprets the cleansing lashes of Proverbs 20:30 allegorically. These “secret lashes of the belly,” which Gregory understands to be the mind’s remembrance of sins, are occasioned by the “external suffering” of illness and produce internally, “the hidden wound of lament [which] cleanses… iniquities” (PR III, 12). Gregory here teaches the ascetic acceptance of the inevitable sufferings of life as opportunities to grow in purity and virtue. This is not to say that Gregory does not also advise certain ascetic labors that are chosen rather than simply accepted. He does. For example, he advocates wearing out the flesh with fasting (PR II, 3) and sexual continence for clerics.

Gregory’s thoughts on clerical continence expressed in a letter to Peter, a subdeacon of Sicily, are worth examining in order to reveal his perspective and assumptions regarding this because they inform to some extent his Book of Pastoral Rule, which does not address the issue directly. In response to a then recent ruling whereby the married subdeacons of Sicily were “forbidden all conjugal intercourse with their wives,” he, ever seeking balance, writes that it was “hard and improper” to impose this on those who were not “accustomed to such continency” (Epistle I, 44). Importantly, however, his solution to this problem is not to permit married clergy to continue their conjugal relations. Rather, he writes that any who “have been unwilling to abstain from intercourse with their wives” should not “be advanced to a sacred order” (Epistle I, 44). Interestingly, he never suggests that married men should not be ordained, but only that they should promise to be continent. It is easy to imagine, however, how this evolved into the current discipline of the Roman Church. Marital continence is “hard,” as Gregory earlier suggested. Better, then, to simply ordain those who are celibate in the full sense of the term. At any rate, Gregory does not seem to consider marital chastity of the usual kind to be a perfect or sufficient chastity when he writes, “bishops should… not… make any one a subdeacon who does not promise to live chastely,” or, “no one ought to approach the ministry of the altar but one who has been of approved chastity before undertaking the ministry” (Epistle I, 44). The only chastity of which Gregory approves as appropriate to ordained ministry is a perpetually continent chastity. Gregory makes this explicitly clear in a later letter to Leo, bishop of Catania in Sicily, again addressing the issue of married subdeacons. They, he writes, “should choose one of two things, that is, either to abstain from their wives, or on no account whatever presume to exercise their ministry” (Epistle IV, 36). Here, again, Gregory upholds an ascetic, self-denying ideal for clergy.

Always moderate, however, in this same letter he defends the right of a subdeacon to choose the latter, that is, to give up serving as a cleric in favor of continuing marital relations. One who had done precisely this was the occasion of this letter. Gregory defends and promotes marriage itself. For example, he objected to “immoderate fees… received on the marriages of peasants,” (Epistle I, 44) perhaps partly because this could be prohibitive. In his Book of Pastoral Rule, he devotes a section to the proper pastoral care of “those in the most honorable state of marriage” (PR III, 27).

Further demonstrating his admiration for marriage, Gregory often speaks of the life of cleric, allegorically, in matrimonial terms. An excellent example of this is his allegorical interpretation of levirate marriage in Deuteronomy 25:10. “The deceased brother,” according to Gregory, “is the One [i.e. Christ] who appearing in glory after the resurrection said, ‘Go, tell my brothers’ (Matt 28:10). For he died without children, so to speak, because he had not yet filled the number of his elect” (PR I, 5). The widowed wife, then, is the bride of Christ, the Church and “the surviving brother” is the cleric. “The surviving brother is assigned to the wife, which is the most fitting, because the care of the holy Church is imposed upon the one who is the most able to govern it well”(PR I, 5). In other words, the cleric is married to the Church in order to “beget children in his brother’s name” (PR I, 5), i.e., in order to bring others to rebirth in Christ.

For Gregory, however, the cleric’s necessary ministerial consideration of matrimony in the literal rather than the allegorical sense is always a condescensio and never something that he should fully participate in himself. As a model of this type of ministry, Gregory puts forth Paul, who was celibate and yet was willing to permit the members of his communities to marry. Gregory writes, “Through his intense economy (condescensio) [Paul] willingly investigates the marriage bed,” or, as another translation puts it, “the bed of the carnal”(PR I, 5). This, as Gregory sees it, is clearly a lowering from the heights of spiritual contemplation to the depths of concern for earthly things, but it is to just such a ministerial lowering of self that God calls the cleric.

The cleric must always live with one foot in the world and the other in heaven. He must never focus on one to the absolute neglect of the other. His vocation is neither exclusively one of internal prayer and contemplation, nor is it exclusively one of external service to the earthly needs of his flock. Gregory teaches that the cleric must always attend to both. His allegorical interpretation of Ezekiel 44:20 concerning the length of priests’ hair, which is to be neither shaved nor long, is a good example of his ideal of balance between these opposing concerns. He writes, “The hairs on the head [of the priests signify] thoughts about external matters” (PR II, 7). The cleric can never abandon these thoughts entirely but neither should they overindulge in them. “The priests are rightly forbidden to shave their head or let their hair grow long – this is so that they will not cut themselves off from all consideration for the flesh on behalf of the laity and also so that they will not allow it to grow once again out of control” (PR II, 7). Therefore, “Let them cut their hair” (Ezek 44:20), that is, priests should seek a balance of external and internal concerns. “External concerns of the laity must be kept to a certain limit,” (PR II, 7) as must withdrawal from them.

Gregory lamented that many monks who were suitable for ordination were unwilling to be ordained because of their excessive love of ascetic withdrawal from earthly cares and pleasures while many worldly men who were unsuitable for ordination sought the sacred office for the sake of honor and prestige. His solution is to advocate a balanced life, a life of contemplation and service, not one or the other. Asceticism enables such a life. It is easy, today as much as in Gregory’s time, for a cleric to become consumed by the cares and pleasures of this world. “Busied back and forth, these men forget that they have undertaken the care of souls” (PR II, 7). Ascetic practices call the cleric back from consuming passions and earthly cares. Renunciation of certain pleasures together with acceptance of daily struggles and sufferings help to moderate to cleric’s life, provided that he does not allow himself to be drawn completely away from the concerns of those he serves to the extent that he is no longer of any use to them. The cleric is not a monk, but he has something to learn from the monk. Further, a monk with ability to serve should be willing to do so, as God wills. Jesus himself condescended to serve others, washing their feet and feeding their bellies, even as he unfailingly preached the gospel, fasted, remained continent, and withdrew often to pray. Here is the perfect model for the cleric.

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