Welcome to the series on the Desert Fathers. This week I’m featuring Part 2 of Abba Gregory the Great.
…continued from Part 1
Gregory the Great’s work on contemplative prayer remains one of his most long standing and influential works. Simply put, contemplative prayer is the experience of Jesus deep in the heart. It is the mystery of God. As one journeys along the spiritual life he will be drawn into the depths of prayer. Gregory teaches practically and profoundly on the deep mystery of contemplative prayer.
He defined the experience of prayer as “sweetness and interior relish”: “Sometimes the soul is admitted to some unwonted sweetness of interior relish, and is suddenly in some way refreshed when breathed on by the glowing spirit; and is the more eager the more it gains a taste of something to love.” Anyone who has been touched by the presence of God will recognize the language of this experience.
This form of prayer is more than mental assent or discourse. To Gregory, as the monk progressed in intimacy with God, he was carried to something far above himself: “And indeed exceedingly lovely is the sweetness of the contemplative life which carries the soul above itself, opens the heavens, shows that earthly cares should be scorned, discloses spiritual truths to the eyes of the mind, and hides those of the body.” The monk travelling towards God would come into contact with a truth that was above his own understanding. It was more than a mental realization, it was an experience that touched the depths of the heart.
It is by longing and desire that the spiritual man is brought outside of himself to encounter his maker in the depths of the heart. “When the mind, employed in prayer, pants after the form of its Maker, burning with divine longings, it is united to that which is above, it is disjoined from that below; it opens itself in the affection of its fervent passion, that it may take in, and while taking in kindles itself; and whilst, with longing desire, the soul is agape after heavenly objects, in a marvelous way it tastes the very thing it longs to get.” Desire is what leads the monk to experience the depths of Jesus. His language echoes that of David in Psalm 42:1 “As the deer pants for the water brooks, So pants my soul for You, O God.” It is the desire for God that leads to God.
Gregory speaks on hearing God, but cautions against vain images: “Then to bend the ear and cover the face is to hear the voice of an inward essence through the mind, and yet to avert the eyes of the heart from every corporeal appearance, lest the spirit imagine something for itself in that of the body which is everywhere whole and everywhere uncircumscribed.”
Hearing God authentically and precisely requires “averting the eyes of the heart from every corporeal appearance.” This means simply that the eyes of our heart must be pure in order to see him who is pure, the danger being imagining something that is not God and is generated by the soul. The genuine seeker must be willing to not see anything in order to truly see God.
One must recognize the limitations of his ability to understand before beginning to comprehend God. Contemplative prayer was the experience of God, not the understanding of God. If the monk hoped to know God, he had to recognize that his understanding was at best limited, and at worst misguided. Trust is the junction between the need to understand and the desire to experience God. When trust is engendered, the need to understand diminishes. When the need to understand diminishes, the path to experiencing the depths of God opens a panorama of God’s nature to the heart of the Christian. “When the mind is hung aloft in the height of contemplation, whatever it has power to see perfectly is not God. … Then only is there truth in what we know concerning God, when we are made sensible we cannot fully know anything concerning Him.” It can rightly be said that we must “let go to let God.”
So what are the steps to experiencing the depths of Jesus? Gregory aptly defines three steps: “Then the first step is to compose oneself, the second to see the like of this composure, the third to rise above oneself and by intention submit to the contemplation of the invisible Creator.” The first two steps are to begin to recognize the limitations of your ability, the third is to lift your heart to God. In recognizing your limitation, you adopt a sort of passive response to experiencing God’s heart. This passivity is not a passivity of action, it is a passivity of will.
Gregory taught that one was to reject his own will in order to be conformed to the will of God. In the contemplative teachings of Christian history, the will of God is more about becoming the person that God sees you as, as opposed to accomplishing what God would ask of you.
Gregory taught that in the beginning stages of prayer to God, the monk was to place less importance on picturing heavenly or earthly images, or attempting to see, hear, smell, touch or taste God. The counsel was that before the heart was purified, the images and experiences presented would tend to draw the person away from the presence of God and inwards towards himself. Until discernment sets in, the monk was to seek to be in the presence and will of God. But the use of imagery was to be shunned by the novice. In doing this, Gregory taught that the novice began to train himself to see what was actually God.
The true vision of God was relegated to eternity, and anything that was seen in this life was, at best, an approximation. You can almost hear his pastoral heart coming out when taken in context with Matthew 5:8: “Blessed are the pure in heart, For they shall see God.” If it is the pure at heart that shall see God, let us deal first with purity of heart, and then the vision of God will come.
“When the mind has made progress in contemplation it does not yet contemplate that which God is, but that which is under Him. But in that contemplation already the taste of interior quiet is experienced.” He goes on to elaborate on this concept regarding two Old Testament prophets. The conundrum to Gregory was that Ezekiel described his vision in Ezekiel 1 as “the likeness of the glory of God. (Ezekiel 1:28b)” But of Isaiah, Jesus said that he, “saw His glory and spoke of Him. (John 12:41, Isaiah 6)” What was the difference? Gregory answered simply and with clarity, Ezekiel saw the glory of God in his human body, and thus it was in the likeness of God’s glory, and Isaiah was taken to the throne of God and saw God’s glory as it actually was. One was on earth and one was in heaven.
Recounting an experience a contemporary had of this Divine vision he said: “For the vision of Divine light grows so much within the mind, and the mind is so stretched and extended beyond the limitations of its being by this mystical vision, that it becomes higher than all creation. When the mind reaches this state and sees how much it has broadened itself, then it understands how small what it could not even conceive of or see, when it was in the humble body, actually is.” The true vision of God convinces the individual of his own infinite smallness. In light of God and His glory, we really are but a breath (Psalm 39:5).
The Spirit of Prophecy
Gregory the Great speaks of the Spirit of prophecy as someone familiar with the gift, office, and operation of prophecy. In his Homilies on Ezekiel, a series of sermons to the church, Gregory effectively teaches his congregants (and later readers) the breadth, scope, limitations, and considerations when it comes to the operation of the prophetic gift. To Gregory the Great, the gift of prophecy, as well as the Spirit of prophecy, was alive and well.
As the term prophecy implies a foretelling of future events, how come, in scripture, there are moments that someone is said to prophesy but they don’t speak to the future? “How, then, may it be called ‘the spirit of prophecy’ that lays bare no future event but reports the present? In this case, attention must be paid to what is rightly described as prophecy, not because it predicts future events, but because it uncovers hidden truths.” Gregory then defines the spirit of prophecy as that which uncovers hidden truths. The truth uncovered is ether hidden in time (past or present), on in the future. “For as a coming event lies hidden in future time, a present thought is latent in a secret heart.”
For further elaboration, he defined three tenses for prophecy: past, present, and future. “Prophecy has three tenses: the past, of course; the present; and the future. Prophecy concerning the future: ”Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a Son.” Prophecy concerning the past: ”In the beginning, God created Heaven and earth”-for a man speaks of a time when man was not. A prophecy about the present is when Paul the Apostle says, ”But if all prophesy, and there come in one that believeth not, or one unlearned, he is convinced of all, he is judged of all: and thus are the secrets of his heart made manifest; and so falling down on his face, he will worship God, and report that God is in you of a truth.” Indeed, when it is said, ”The secrets of his heart are made manifest,” it is truly shown that through this mode of prophecy the Spirit does not predict what the future will be, but reveals what is.” Those gifted in the area of prophecy reveal truth that is hidden through the spirit of prophecy.
He recognized the limitations of prophetic knowledge: ”For the spirit of prophecy neither always nor in the same way touches the understanding of the Prophet. But sometimes the spirit of prophecy touches the heart of the Prophet from the present and in no wise from the future, sometimes from the future and not from the present. Indeed, sometimes it touches from both present and future, while sometimes the understanding of the Prophet is touched from the past and the present and the future equally.” The prophetically inclined individual by no means knows everything. Prophetic knowledge is limited in the degree that the heart of the prophet is touched. The prophet was never meant to know everything perfectly and completely. His understanding is limited, especially so by his own nature.
He goes through numerous examples in scripture to demonstrate the limitations of prophetic knowledge. For instance:
The Spirit reveals to Peter that three men are going to come to him when he is in a trance on the roof of the house in the city of Joppa, yet Peter has to ask them about their business because that has not been disclosed to him. (Acts 10)
When Samuel was sent to anoint David, Samuel protested because he was sure Saul would hear of it and kill him. Samuel was aware of the call of David and the future of David as king, but not of his own future. (1 Samuel 16)
When Isaac blesses Jacob instead of Esau, he is aware of what is to come in that he prophesies to Jacob, but he is not aware that it is Jacob and not Esau. (Genesis 27)
When Jacob blessed Joseph’s two sons he is aware of who is the older and who is the younger (not by sight as he couldn’t distinguish the two children) as well as their future destinies. He is aware of the present and the future. (Genesis 48)
Ahijah the Prophet is aware of Jeroboam’s wife even though she disguised herself. He is aware of the present and the future. (1 Kings 14)
Elizabeth recognizes past, present, and future when it comes to Mary, the mother of Jesus. She proclaims that it was done of the Holy Spirit, that the baby she carries is the Lord and that she is the Mother, and that she would see those things fulfilled that had been promised to her. (Luke 1:39-45)
Elisha asks the man where the axe head has fallen and throws the stick where it is and the axe floats, he knew what would happen, but not where the axe head had fallen. (2 Kings 6)
The sons of the prophets knew Elijah was going to be carried away but didn’t know where as they looked for him after he was taken in the whirlwind. (2 Kings 2)
John the Baptist was touched of the present, but not of the future when he claims Jesus is the lamb at the baptism but later questions whether he is the one. (John 1, Matthew 11:3)
Gregory also taught that prophetically inclined individuals ought to recognize when the spirit of prophecy is not with them. He cites the example of Elisha and Gehazi with the Shunamite woman: “Hence, Elisha, when he forbade the boy Gehazi to thrust the weeping Shunamite woman from his feet, said, “Let her alone, for her soul is in anguish, and the Lord hath hid it from me, and hath not told me.” As well as Elisha calling for a musician to bring the spirit of prophecy: “Thus also, when Jehoshaphat asked him about future events, and the spirit of prophecy was not in him, Elisha made the musician apply himself, so that the spirit of prophecy would descend upon him through the praise of the melody and replenish his mind concerning what would come.”
He also taught that, through familiarity a prophet could speak presumptively: “It must also be known that sometimes Holy Prophets, when they are consulted, through their familiarity with prophesying, pass judgement from their own spirit, believing that they speak thus with the spirit of prophecy, but because they are holy men swiftly corrected by the Holy Spirit, from whom they hear what is true and censure themselves for speaking falsely.” The difference between a true and a false prophet was not necessarily accuracy, but repentance. Those that speak presumptively are quick to repent, and those that speak in falsity continue in the falsity.
He used the example of Nathan with David to illustrate this. When Nathan hears David’s intent regarding building the temple, Nathan says, “Go, do all that is in your heart, for the Lord is with you (2 Samuel 7:3).” Later that night, the word of the Lord comes to Nathan and corrects his previous utterance. Nathan is quick to correct his misspoken encouragement. Nathan demonstrated that he believed what he was saying to be from the Lord by stating “the Lord is with you.”
“In this matter, the difference between true and false Prophets is such that true Prophets, if they sometimes speak from their own spirit, having learnt from their hearers’ minds through the Holy Spirit, rapidly correct this. For false Prophets make false prophecies, and those alien from the Holy Spirit continue in their falsity.” Gregory’s point is that a prophet like Nathan can hear the desire of David to build the temple and assume that God is with him. It can be difficult to discern between the desire of the people and the desire of God. To Gregory, good Prophets can hear the thoughts of people and pass judgement in their own spirit, but are good because they quickly recognize that they have done this and correct themselves. It only took Nathan a day to correct this mistake.
Lastly, he recognized the need for maturity when it comes to prophetic ministry: “…during the early years of our adolescence or youth we must abstain from prophecy, so that the plowshare of our tongue does not dare to cleave the land of another’s heart. For as long as we are immature, it behooves us to contain ourselves, lest while we show tender virtues too swiftly, we lose them. For even planted vineyards touched by hand before they take root in the earth quickly wither; but once they have fixed root the hand touches and yet does not hurt; the winds strike, but for all their assaults inflict no harm.”
What was the test of readiness for prophetic ministry? Gregory speaks insightfully: “For the mind must first grow strong, and then be revealed for the benefit of neighbors presently, when it neither collapses after elevation by praise nor wastes away when shaken by vituperation (criticism).” Maturity was simple, when you are neither elevated by praise, nor crushed by criticism. Then you are ready.
Abba Gregory the Great passed away in 604 AD. Throughout his life, in all of his letters, he referred to himself as the “Servant of servants,” and he truly believed and lived that life. He gave up his primary love of solitude and prayer in order to serve the church in a time when a man of his stature was much needed. The tenor of his writings is a man of great experience. When he writes of the depths of prayer, you know he experienced them, when he writes of pastoral care, you know he practiced it, when he writes of prophecy, you know he walked in it. Yet in all of his writings, and in all of his leadership, “Almost his last action was to send a warm winter cloak to a poor bishop who suffered from the cold.”