"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

An Interview with George Demacopoulos on Gregory the Great

As I noted last June, when notice of this book's publication was posted, we have been living in a time of increasing scholarship focusing on the diverse figures occupying, diverse theological understandings of, and diverse practices emanating from, the bishopric of Rome in the first millennium, a focus which was called for in part by the modern Orthodox-Catholic dialogue and the recent popes of Rome themselves, including John Paul II, on whose request I have had a few things to say. The more we learn of this period the more we find that it fits easily and neatly into nobody's imagined reconstructions of the past, especially hardcore triumphalistic apologists in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy.

One of those prominent figures contributing to this scholarship is the Orthodox George Demacopoulos of Fordham University, author of several recent studies, including The Invention of Peter: Apostolic Discourse and Papal Authority in Late Antiquity, which I favorably reviewed elsewhere.

Along with Aristotle Papanikalaou, also of Fordham's theology department and its Orthodox Christian Studies Centre, Demacopoulos is editor of the invaluable scholarly collection Orthodox Constructions of the West (Orthodox Christianity and Contemporary Thought, which I discussed on here in three parts.

His new book returns to some earlier work he did on St. Gregory the Great, including a translation, The Book of Pastoral Rule: St. Gregory the Great, part of the Popular Patristics Series of St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.

Demacopoulos's first book, Five Models of Spiritual Direction in the Early Church, also featured a chapter on Gregory the Great, to whom he returns in his newest book, published this year: Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, and First Man of Rome (UND Press, 2015), 240pp. I sent him some questions to interview him about this newest book, and here are his thoughts:

AD: Tell us about your background, and what led you to this book:

George E. Demacopoulos: 15 years ago, I wrote my dissertation at UNC-CH on Gregory the Great's approach to spiritual direction, arguing that he attempted to bring to the broader Christian world the technologies of pastoral care then operative in ascetic communities.  At the time, Robert Markus has recently published his excellent biography of Gregory and my dissertation advisor wisely recommended that I look in a different direction when turning the dissertation into a book. So, for my first monograph, I put the questions about spiritual direction that I had for Gregory to a broader set of early Christian authors.

My second book continued to work in Gregory's world (the late-ancient papacy) but, again, examined one facet of his thought (the link between St. Peter and the papacy) that also captivated other late ancient authors.

So, in some sense, I have been thinking about this current book for nearly fifteen years, but it was only recently that I felt ready to attempt what I believe is a new approach to the so-called "two Gregorys"--the ascetic contemplative and the shrewd administrator.

AD: As you may know, the popes of Rome for 20 years now have been calling for more scholarship on the papacy in the first millennium--and the official international Orthodox-Catholic dialogue hsa done likewise. Do you see both your recent book, The Invention of Peter, and now this one on Gregory the Great as part of this trajectory of 'ecumenical scholarship' as it were?

GED: With regard to ecumenical engagement via historical study--Yes, I do see this as part of that broader project.  Not so much because I expect to strike the perfect cord between Orthodox and Roman Catholics but because I believe that the Orthodox have great deal to learn from figures like St. Gregory and because the Orthodox desperately need a little more nuance and sophistication in their understanding of the development of the papacy and the ways in which the papacy was understood by early Christians east of the Adriatic.

AD: Your introduction (p.5) speaks of a topic I've recently become preoccupied with: the role of 'editorial erasure...in the shaping of ecclesiastical memory.' Is that a significant factor in assessing Gregory's pontificate?

GED: In some sense, it is hard to know how much editorial erasure took place--we don't have much evidence of things that once existed and no longer do.  But it is really important for historians to be ever conscious of the fact that we have limited access to the figures of pre-modernity and that we are very much beholden to the editors and copyists, whatever theological or ideological biases, who preserved our records.

AD: A key theme throughout your work is the influence of Gregory's ascetic theology on the rest of his life and work. Tell us a bit more about that theology and its importance.

GED: What I find so intriguing about Gregory's ascetic theology was that it was somewhat unique of major late-ancient thinkers.  Whereas most ascetic theologians understood the summit of the Christian experience to be a kind of mystical encounter or union with the divine (one that typically required renunciation), Gregory speaks of the summit of the Christian life being achieved only when the ascetic forsakes the spiritual joys of contemplation for the benefit of others.  In Gregory, we find someone who genuinely sees perfection in service, rather than in ascetic isolation. But this perfection is always an asceticism of a particular kind.

AD: As you know, sometimes polemical treatments (whether Protestant or Orthodox) of the papacy view it as one long campaign of self-aggrandizement motivated by what Augustine famously called "libido dominandi." Yet you note (p.43) that in Gregory there is little evidence of one seeking gratuitously to expand Roman claims. Moreover, in the famous dispute with John the Faster over the title "ecumenical" and elsewhere, Gregory, as you note, is at pains to stress Peter's faults and flaws, which strikes me as a singular and rather odd strategy, at least in the eyes of modern papal apologetics. Why would Gregory have done that--rather than, say, play up Peter as "prince of the apostles"?

Yes, Gregory is the only late-ancient pope who even addresses with any significance Peter's flaws. And, for Gregory, these are the keys to Peter (pardon the pun).  Unlike Leo or Gelasius, Gregory has very little interest in asserting papal privilege on the basis of Peter (though he will of course defend Roman claims, but he doesn't attempt to extend those in any way). Gregory is deeply committed to a theology of spiritual direction, of spiritual reform, and of emphasizing the importance of humility in the Christian leader.  For all of these reasons, Peter, in Gregory's hands, is a model of repentance, of humility, and of spiritual growth after failure. That's why he emphasizes the flaws.

AD: Looking at him in the eyes of contemporary scholarship and churchmanship, as well as ecumenically, what do you see as Gregory's legacy today?

GED: Gregory is clear bridge between east and west and between late-antiquity and the middle ages. He was a man who longed for retreat and contemplation but felt moved to action for the benefit of others.

AD: Having finished Gregory the Great: Ascetic, Pastor, and First Man of Rome, what are you at work on now? What's the next project?

GED: I recently received a Carpenter Foundation Grant, which allows for a year-long sabbatical beginning next month.  The first book project will apply the resources of post-colonial critique to the study of Orthodox identity narratives in the wake of the Crusades.  I don't think I will get to a second project in that time frame, but the next one (which I've started to write a few articles about) explores the theology of violence in early Byzantine hymnography.

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