St. Gregory the Great and Jealousy: why I read dead people.

November 2, 2012

I recently read a rather old book entitled The Book of the Pastoral Rule by St. Gregory the Great.  Written in the 6th century, the depth and breadth of his grasp on the human condition is quite remarkable.  I would even go so far as to say that he was ahead of our time in many respects.  Certainly there are where I would depart from Gregory’s theology but one (there were several) passage that stood out to me as truly astounding is on p.108 (if you read the translation by Demacopoulos).  Here Gregory is contrasting the “well disposed and the envious,” and how the spiritual director is to advise them differently.

Gregory writes:
“The envious should be advised that they consider how great is their blindness if they are disappointed by another’s progress or are consumed with another’s rejoicing.  How great is the unhappiness of those who become worse because of the betterment of their neighbors? … What is more unfortunate than those who are made even more wicked by the sight of happiness?  And yet the good deeds of others, which they do not possess, they could acquire if they loved them.”
Now Gregory grounds this thought in a beautiful and profound understanding of the union believers share in their faith and through the Church.
“For indeed, all are bound together in faith, just as many members constitute a single body… Thus it is the case that the foot sees by the eyes, and through the foot the eyes move…Therefore we observe in the inner working of the body how we should behave.”
Brilliant!  He continues…
“In fact, it is disgraceful that we are not able to imitate what we are.  Those good qualities that we love in others, which we do not seem to be able to imitate, are, in fact, ours also.  And whatever is loved in us becomes the possession of those who love them.  Therefore, let the envious consider how great is the virtue of charity, which makes the labor of others our own without any work on our part.”

I find this staggering!  So for Gregory the antidote for a heart issue such as jealousy is to provide something of far greater worth and beauty.  So by love we obtain the things that we would have otherwise envied.  I’m still trying to wrap my mind around this but my initial thought is that we American Protestants are (what are we protesting anymore?) so far removed from a holistic understanding of what the Church is at its essence that to make such connections from our union with each other to practical living is simply foreign.  This deflates the power of envy and jealousy at it’s root because we are so united to one another that we really do “possess” that which we would have envied.  This seems to push one towards a radical heart change (what we normally refer to as repentance) that is kingdom focused rather than the hyper-individualism we experience in most of our churches.  I’d love to hear some more thoughts on this…

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