The roots of heart religion – Gregory the Great


English: Jerome & Gregory.

English: Jerome & Gregory. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is the second part of the tour of medieval heart religion from the affective devotion chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. It follows the first part here, which looks at Origen and Augustine:

We have seen already a bit of how the hugely influential Christian philosopher/educator Boethius Anicius developed that theme of earthly and heavenly desire in his allegory of Lady Philosophy. Now we turn to arguably the most influential Father for the medieval period after Augustine: Gregory the Great. Jean LeClercq, modern author of The Love of Learning and the Desire for God, has called Gregory “the Doctor of Desire.” Carole Straw calls his popular writings “an encyclopedia of spiritual experience.”[1]

Gregory’s chief contribution to the tradition of heart religion was his formulation of the virtue of compunctio (“compunction”).[2] Often thought of as a kind of godly sorrow (2 Cor. 7:10-11), the Latin word literally means “piercing.” It is rooted in Acts 2:37, which tells how Peter’s hearers at Pentecost were “pierced to the heart.” Cassian, Benedict, and others had followed up this clue by closely associating compunction with conversion, but it was Gregory who made it a central value in Western spirituality.

Gregory’s teaching on compunction emerged from his “deeply felt sense of the radical insufficiency of all terrestrial goods in relation to those of the heavenly world.” (As Augustine had said, the fact that we desire something that earthly things cannot satisfy indicates that we are made for a spiritual fulfillment.) Not just simple sorrow for sin, Gregorian compunction refer to “the whole of the Christian’s attitude toward present existence in relation to the underlying desire for the stability and joy of heaven.” Compunction certainly involved tears, and sometimes it might involve a terrifying fear of God. But though those sorts of negative feelings might come chronologically first in our lives, they provided a doorway to a higher emotion: “the compunction of love”—or more simply, desire for God.

Gregory deepened and elaborated Augustine’s simple experience of restlessness leading to rest. Our desire for union with God operates in a kind of cycle, never to be fulfilled on this earth. Every time we come closer to God, our desire for him is amplified; in the very fulfillment of the desire, there is planted a deeper yearning to experience more of the beloved. “‘Love’s power is the mind’s machine, drawing it away from the world while it lifts it on high.’”[3] We sense the beauty of God. We desire him. We experience him, yet immediately desire him more.

Gregory says that God gives us two wounds of compunction. “First, he strikes the flesh, wounding the elect on the outside in order to bring interior renewal (Deut 32:39).” This is very closely related to asceticism – and I will argue that the affective and the ascetic are symbiotically related in medieval spirituality. Second, God wounds us within, “‘striking our mind’s insensibility with desire for him.” When our hearts are undisturbed by this restless desire, says Gregory, then we are “healthy in a sick way.” But in compunction, we are “wounded to be healed.” His “barbs of love” renders us “sensitive.” Gregory concludes by quoting the bride of the Song of Songs, who says, “‘I am wounded by charity [that is, by the love of God].’” And when we are so wounded, we “‘burn with the desire of contemplation,’” which his wounding stirs to life. That desire “‘burns, it pants, and it already longs to see him whom it [formerly] fled.’”[4]

I do wonder how most moderns would understand this sort of desire for the hereafter today? As a sort of psychological maladjustment, I suppose! The important thing to see here is that although God starts by making us sorrow for sin, he does not stop there. He draws us into a deeper commitment to God and to the whole Christian life. Compunction is the voice of the Holy Spirit, of which Gregory said, “to hear [it] . . . is to rise up into love of the invisible Creator.”[5]

McGinn lists a number of dimensions of this complex experience. It involves “sorrow for sin, religious awe before the divine judge, detachment from the world, intense longing for heaven, contemplative self-awareness, and even the sweet sorrow that accompanies the necessary descent from the heights of the immediate experience of God.”[6] This last note about the “necessary descent from the heights” reminds us of Lewis’s observation that our experiences of joy (sehnsucht) are themselves experiences of longing—there may be some fulfillment in them, but they always move us back into further longing.

Also important is that Gregorian compunction was not purely an inner, private experience – like some sort of spiritualizing self-indulgence. “Compunction too is meant to nourish our concern for our neighbor, especially in the case of the clergy.”[7] When we get to the late-medieval lay mystic Margery Kempe, we will see how powerful this Gregorian teaching about compunction would become for medieval Christians—and we will also see this neighbor dimension, even in a layperson.


[1] Straw, Gregory the Great: Perfection in Imperfection, 16.

[2] McGinn calls this teaching “one of [Gregory’s] most important contributions to the later history of Western spirituality.” McGinn, Growth, 48. He continues: “Closely associated with metanoia—that is, ‘change of heart’ or conversion’—compunction has a rich history in both Eastern and Western Christianity. [e.g. Cassian, Benedict’s Rule, etc.] It was Gregory who gave it the most attention, though, and who made it a central value in Latin spirituality.”

[3] Gregory quoted in McGinn, Growth of Mysticism, 59.

[4] McGinn, 60-61.

[5] Gregory cited in McGinn, 49.

[6] McGinn, 50.

[7] McGinn, 50.

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