The Builder And The Contemplative

In his magnificent book The Love of Learning and The Desire for God: A Study of Monastic Culture, Jean Leclercq calls St. Gregory the Great “a great pope, a great man of action.” Sometimes overlooked, though, he was also “a great contemplative, a great doctor of prayer.” I want to suggest this balance between these two sides of our lives is timeless, absolutely necessary. Tip one direction or the other and we get off balance.

I often say I have discovered two sides to me. Yes, one is this contemplative side. I am a reader. I am prone to sink into reflection, striving to think things through. I often turn to writing in order to get my thinking more clear, drawn as well to good writers who work things out in good writing. I love meaningful conversation, maybe a little too impatient with small talk. I have always tried to spend disciplined time in prayer and the reading of Scripture, more in the last few years than ever before. All of this is what I call, perhaps broadly, the contemplative side.

But I am also, I have discovered, a builder. I know I can never neglect this active side. I spent my young years tagging along with my dad, who was a real builder, looking at new buildings, marveling at the deep trenches, smelling the sawdust, watching the frame rise to rafters. I loved it. Still do. This need to build something—all the way from the imagination, on to the foundations, finally into something created for good use by others—this has always been thrilling to me. This is my active side, the builder side, not to be neglected.

But Leclercq goes on to say about St. Gregory something very interesting:

His experience is that of a contemplative condemned to action. His ideal is the calm of monastic life: that is, the life he wanted to lead, and was able to lead for only a few years. External circumstances and the call from God obliged him to serve and then to govern the Church, to live, as he says, in the ‘agitations of the world,’ and this during a time [from A D 540 to 604] which was particularly troubled in Rome and in all Italy. He will unite action and contemplation; but he will always have a nostalgia for the latter. The supreme pontificate will be a burden to him, and the suffering he will undergo from being so divided will arouse in his soul an ardent longing for peace.

What strikes me here is that Gregory was a great man of action because he was a great man of prayer. The center of his living started with the inner life, the life of study, serious reading of Scripture, formidable time in prayer. Along with St. Benedict in the sixth century, of course, St. Gregory was the father of the great monastic movement that helped to shape Western civilization. Out of those “agitations of the world,” the work to which he was committed as a builder, in his soul he always had that “ardent longing for peace,” a longing that is satisfied only by study and prayer. Out of that tension, perhaps, came the measure of his great contribution.

And this is the measure of any leader. I knew this tension in all my years as a leader. Always when I found myself cut off from the deep wells of prayer and learning, that’s when I would dry up in my leadership. That’s when I would run out of ideas. That’s when I would get too focused on myself, unable to treat others with the kindness and gratitude they deserved. I believe every effective leader has got to work from the inside-out. You may be sure the inside will grow weary and dry up if we work from the outside-in. Leadership requires a nurtured, watered soul.

Finally, I am struck with how much discipline there was in the lives of great Christian leaders like St. Benedict and St. Gregory. When you are living the active life to the fullest, you have to discipline yourself to cultivate the contemplative side. You have to return to the deep well every morning, throughout the week. Every effective leader—pastor, professor, business person, professional—must return to that well for a drink of restoring water, yes, regularly. It takes discipline, but unless we pause to drink, we will soon dry up. And then there is this: Before you know it, that pause to drink becomes the most satisfying moment of your day. That’s what St. Gregory knew. That’s what I want to learn better.