The Book of Pastoral Rule

I spent some time at Barnes and Noble recently reading Gregory the Great’s The Book of Pastoral Rule.  Its a great little book.  Obviously I don’t agree with many aspects of Gregory’s theology, seeing as I am Protestant and he was a Pope in the Roman Catholic church.  However, I was surprised at how much I could appreciate and commend about this little book.  Its filled with wisdom and helpful advice concerning pastoral ministry.  Three observations:

1) A theme I particularly noticed is Gregory’s point that pastoral ministry requires a balance of inner and outer qualities, of contemplation and activity, of administration and asceticism, of other-worldly holiness and this-worldly wisdom.  E.g., the title of II.7: “the spiritual director should not reduce his attention to the internal life because of external occupations, nor should he relinquish his care for external matters because of his anxiety for the internal life.”  Many careers, even very rewarding and challenging ones, require gifting in one area of specialization.  But a pastor must be balanced between the world of thought and the world of action.  He must be well-grounded in both theory and practice.  I think this is a helpful reminder because so often we tend to gravitate more into one of these realms than the other, and thus need to continually “re-balance” ourselves.  This is a challenging calling!  No wonder Gregory can say, “the care of souls is the art of arts” (1.1).

2) I also thought Gregory has a lot of wisdom on the discernment required for effectively ministering to different kinds of people.  This especially comes out in Part III of the book, where he gives counsel on how to advise men and women, young and old, rich and poor, zealous and complacent – he gives a list which includes dozens more of these kinds of distinctions.  For example, here’s a helpful one: “those who misinterpret the words of sacred Scripture, and those who understand them but do not speak about them with humility.”  Then the rest of this section gives detailed advice on how to minister to each kind of person differently.  I found this a very helpful reminder that pastoral care is not “one size fit all.”  We are dealing with people, and therefore we must have great sensitivity as to how different needs call for different approaches.

3) Much of the book highlights the height and difficulty of the pastoral office, and the foolishness of seeking it rashly.  But Gregory also confronts those who are genuinely called but avoid this calling out of complacency or fear.  “There are those, as we have said, who are enriched by many gifts; and because they prefer contemplative study, they decline to make themselves useful by preaching to their neighbors, and preferring the mystery of stillness they take refuge in their solitude of [spiritual] investigations” (I.5).  In other words, while there are many who seek the pastoral office who should not, there are also many who neglect to seek the pastoral office who should.

I appreciate this balance, and especially the call to use our gifts to serve others.  To have gifts and calling but neglect to put them into practice in order to serve other people is to waste those gifts and aggravate that calling.  This corresponds one of the things God is teaching me during our season here in DC: that knowledge without love is nothing.  I can amass worlds of knowledge, but until I use that knowledge to make my life practically helpful to other people, I am not yet making any progress in what the gospel reveals as truly valuable.

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