Learning from the Love Doctor
September 3rd marks the feast day of Pope St. Gregory the Great, a man from whom teachers have much to learn, especially since he lived in a chaotic age. In fact, Gregory was convinced he was living in the end times. It seems the world is always coming to an end. There may not be marauding Lombards at the gates today, but modern civilization is under attack by a new breed of barbarian. Given that cultural crisis is common to both eras, St. Gregory’s life has direct applicability to the problems transpiring today and to their solution: the solution of education.
In the latter end of the 6th century, Italy was tottering under the failed conquests of Emperor Justinian and was reeling with famine, disease, bureaucratic corruption, and devalued education. In the midst of the mayhem, Gregory was prepared for life through the Liberal Arts education he received and the thorough course of religious studies which accompanied it. While his education led him to the seclusion of a Benedictine monastery, Gregory was not permitted to retreat from the world. Renowned for his wisdom and learning, he was compelled by Pope Benedict I to become a deacon in Rome. Later, Pope Pelagius II sent the deacon to Constantinople to be a papal emissary. When the flustered emissary tried to slip back into his abbey to be a happy monk again, he was made an overwrought papal secretary. When Pope Pelagius died, the overwrought secretary was pressed to become a reluctant pope.
Though he avoided the holy office, appealing to the Byzantine Emperor and even fleeing Rome, Gregory could not escape. The people would not allow it, and neither would God. Though unwilling, he proved one of history’s most active, influential, and powerful religious and political leaders. His unwavering devotion to doing good won him greatness. From dining with beggars every day to his calling captives angels, Gregory was a pope who knew the power of love. Though hesitant to rise to the occasion of worldly opportunity, Gregory never hesitated to rise to the occasion of heavenly charity. Greatness is the result of love, and it is Gregory’s love, together with his espousing of classical education, that makes him a model for teachers today.
Educators should look to Gregory if they seek for that education which is founded upon charity, and the desire for goodness, truth, and beauty. St. Gregory was animated by a dynamic love that was focused entirely on the desire for God. And it is upon this very desire that good and true education flourishes. Jean Leclercq, a Benedictine monk and theologian, once dubbed St. Gregory the Doctor of Desire. One might almost rephrase it as Love Doctor. Leclercq’s title refers to Gregory’s belief that asceticism and study was a preparation for the desire for God: a training, or a cultivation, of that desire.
Through prayerful meditation on Sacred Scripture and the good, true, and beautiful things of this world, the desire for God is sown in the heart under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit inspires our best thoughts and brings understanding, enkindling and guiding our deepest, most inward longings. At the touch of the Holy Spirit, the heart leaps up in yearning for God. Gregory speaks of this experience as a symposium between God and man, a conversation that begins with God’s word inflaming the desire of the heart, a gentle word that one must wait for, listen for. “The greatness of contemplation,” St. Gregory writes, “can be given to none but those who love.”
There is a moment in the Book of Job which echoes Elijah’s experience with the hurricane, earthquake, fire, and breeze: “There stood one whose countenance I knew not, an image before my eyes, and I heard the voice, as it were, of a gentle wind.” In this, this murmur, this hidden word, Gregory heard the opening of a lovers’ dialogue. “This inspiration touches the human mind,” he writes, “and by touching lifts it up and represses temporal thoughts, inflaming it with eternal desires… so that to hear the hidden word is to conceive the speech of the Holy Spirit in the heart.” What more can education hope to enflame?
The cultivation of desire, or the cultivation of the virtues of the heart, of which Gregory speaks, is the essence of education. Generally speaking, people will only do well in anything if they have a will to do so—a wanting, a desire. Consequently, education that does not engage the heart, fails. True education is a romantic endeavor, a coaxing, an attempt to awaken desire and the longing for ultimate consummation. If wisdom is a beautiful woman, as we learn from Proverbs, then love must not only play a part, it must lead the way in guiding youthful minds to fulfillment.
The world is ever in need of reform, education, and the re-establishment of faith. Gregory was the man to bring these to his day and age, and his example and leadership are far from obsolete because the love he desired and gave is ever new. The problems of a crumbling culture with which he grappled are still real and relevant. St. Gregory the Great is a great patron for educators today, an ancient saint for modern times. The Doctor of Desire, the Love Doctor, was a great priest, a great pope, and a great teacher, but he was a lover first and foremost. And that is why he achieved greatness, for, in his words, “Where love exists, it works great things.”
Copyright © 2019 The Cardinal Newman Society. Permission to reprint without modification to text, with attribution to author and to The Cardinal Newman Society, and (if published online) hyperlinked to the article on the Newman Society’s website. The views expressed herein are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Cardinal Newman Society.