Pope St. Gregory and the River of Prayer

Robin Stott [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Today is the memorial of St. Gregory the Great, the Benedictine monk and Pope who was responsible for the establishment of the Benedictine monastic tradition in western Europe. The most common form of plainsong chant bears his name (Gregorian), but was not actually set down until centuries after he lived. It is also thanks to Gregory that we know anything about the life of St. Benedict himself, although much of what Gregory wrote is surely legend.

As for the connection to my own Presbyterian tradition: the reformer John Calvin, as anti-catholic (i.e. “Romophobic”) as he was, he nevertheless referred to Gregory as “the last good Pope.” High praise from an unlikely source that highlights the natural affinity I’ve noticed between the Presbyterian and Benedictine traditions:

  • The unaccompanied singing of psalms in worship
  • An inclination toward visual simplicity
  • The conviction that all of life is sacred
  • Liturgical flexibility between independent communities (e.g. the use of the Presbyterian Directory for Worship and the Benedictine Thesaurus for giving general guidelines without prescribing a single, set liturgy)
  • The surprising number of Presbyterian clergy and laity who also happen to be Benedictine oblates: Kathleen Norris, Rachel Srubas, Eric Dean, Laura Dunham… and in the case of Lynne Smith: one Presbyterian pastor who is also a Benedictine nun.

This affinity is especially striking to me, as a Presbyterian who feels called to highlight the catholicity of our faith and help our denomination return to our liturgical and sacramental roots.

Today’s second reading from the Liturgy of the Hours is borrowed from one of Pope St. Gregory’s homilies on the book of Ezekiel. His text is Ezekiel 3:17 – “Mortal, I have made you a sentinel for the house of Israel.”

Gregory had this to say:

Note that one whom the Lord sends forth as a preacher is called a sentinel. A sentinel always stands on a height in order to see from afar what is coming. Those appointed to be a sentinels for the people must stand on a height for all their life to help the people by their foresight.

He speaks longingly of his days in the monastery and laments the drama he gets sucked into in his pastoral ministry. Immediately after reading this passage at the Office of Readings, I checked my email to find literally dozens of invitations had arrived overnight for me to participate in activist events, political campaigns, and one public forum. Later today, I’ll be heading into my office to return phone calls, answer emails, oversee building repair projects, and brainstorm emergency fundraising ideas.

This never-ending laundry list reminds me of the most important part of my day: the extended prayer times I carve out as the church office opens and closes. There are times when I am tempted to see that time as self-indulgent: after all, my elders and deacons don’t get to consider prayer part of their workday, why should I? But Gregory indicates that pastoral work wouldn’t be possible without it.

Prayer is the height on which the sentinel stands in order to gain perspective for everything else that needs to be done. To paraphrase Richard Rohr: Prayer is not one of the ten thousand things that make up our lives; it is the lens through which we see those ten thousand things.

Thomas Keating likewise uses the image of a person sitting by on riverbank, watching the boats go by. The boats are those thoughts, perceptions, events, and needs that constantly assault us all day long. The goal of prayer (contemplative prayer in particular) is to look past the boats and focus on the river. This is God, the Ground of Being, who holds each “boat” in the current of divine energy that flows back into the ocean, from which we all have come.

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