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Derek Olsen (Presented at the 2009 Patristic/Medieval/Renaissance Conference in Villanova, PA)
This paper represents a first step towards identifying a Gregorian method of preaching. There’s no question that preaching and homiletics in the early medieval West were fundamentally shaped by Gregory the Great. Gregory’s Forty Gospel Homilies in particular set the tone—and indeed, the content—for homiliaries for centuries to come. And yet—how did Gregory shape the preaching of the West? There’s no doubt that preachers like Bede, Haymo of Auxerre, Ælfric of Eynsham, and others were influenced deeply by Gregory. But how? Did he shape homiletics by the replication of his content, the replication of his homiletical method, or some combination of the two? To answer this question, I hope to identify a Gregorian method of preaching that then can be compared with these later authors. The fundamental question that I’m asking is a simple one: what framework did Gregory have in mind when he sat down to write one of his Gospel homilies? What strategies did he have to rely upon—and how consistent was he in their application? What taxonomical and compositional units did Gregory think in, and how did he deploy these in his homilies? I’m going to argue that Gregory the Great’s Forty Gospel Homilies display the consistent use of a macrostructure, a two-part form or template that he used, adapting it slightly as needed. I’m going to suggest that he also used a consistent set of micro-structural steps. More research needs to be done here, but I believe that Gregory uses an adapted form of the steps taught in the rhetorical exercises of Priscian. First—on the macro-structural of Gregory’s homilies. The Forty Gospel Homilies tend to follow a single basic pattern that is adapted in a variety of ways. He has two fundamental sections: an exposition of the Gospel, and a discourse on a theme. This separation is quite conscious, and on occasion Gregory either divulges the plan of his sermon beforehand, as in homilies 13 and 401, or makes a clear transition from the Gospel to the theme. He’ll often use the word transcurrimus—now that we have run through this Gospel, I’ll speak to you about the significance of this solemnity we celebrate… In fact this word marks the transition in four sermons in the Easter season (homilies 21, 22, 25, and 29) where he moves from an exposition of the Gospel to a discussion of the liturgical occasion. Why does he does he uses this two-part form? The clearest explanation—and it’s not entirely conclusive as far as I’m concerned—may be found in the introduction to homily 40: In discussing how he will order his homily he says, “Frequently it happens that what is heard last is best remembered.” Perhaps that’s his motive—he presents the Gospel, then gives the people a specific teaching that can be easily remembered.
The numbering of homilies here follows the standard system found in the PL and the CCSL edition. The English translation by Dom David Hurst in the Cistercian Studies series uses an idiosyncratic method.
Within these two parts—an exegetical exposition and a subsequent discourse—we can identify a couple of broad strategies that Gregory uses to address each of them. For the exegetical exposition his preference is far and away a line-by-line analysis. Of the 40 homilies, 31 are explicitly line-by-line where he cites a line, then interprets it, cites another line and interprets it, working through the whole passage in that fashion. In the 9 homilies where he doesn’t do that, he still addresses the Gospel, but skims through it, picking out some major themes or topics of interest to discuss. Helpfully for us, he sometimes lets us know up front when he’s going to do this: thus at the start of homily 23, Gregory acknowledges that he’s preaching on a weekday and that he won’t weary them with an extended address. Instead he says, “I have determined to examine the meaning of the Gospel lesson summarily and not word by word, lest an overlong explanation be a burden on your kindness.” In the Latin that’s “summatim sensum…non per singula verba discutere”. So here he’s identifying two major strategies that he takes with the text—either a summary or a word by word approach. However, he doesn’t use summatim as a technical term of any sort. Also a few times he states that the Gospel doesn’t need a full treatment or expositio and that he’s just going to give an admonition, as in Homily 15, or an exhortation as in Homily 28. The closest he comes to a technical term for his exegetical methods is his use of in ordine to discuss his more usual line-by-line method. So, when Gregory treats his Gospel text, he prefers an orderly line-by-line route but occasionally takes a more thematic approach. The subsequent discourse has a few major forms. The most common is where Gregory will take the last line of the Scripture passage as a theme and will discourse on a topic drawn from it at some length—a far more full treatment than he gives the other verses. This theme may or may not relate to the rest of the passage. For instance in homily 19 on the parable of the servants in the vineyard who receive equal pay the last line is “Many are called but few are chosen.” Now, that’s not the point of the parable but Gregory gives us a lengthy discourse on the presence of sinners in the church and an exhortation to personal repentance drawn out of this line. Other times, though, this final discourse is tied into a theme that captures the sense of the passage as a whole. For example in homily 35, Gregory’s text is Luke’s passage on the calamities that must take place before the judgment. The homily starts with Gregory’s statement of his theme—Jesus tells us what to expect at the end so we can endure with patience. Patience is the key here. Then he moves through a line-by-line exegesis of the text. The interpretation of the last line turns into a full-scale discourse on the virtue of patience. So one strategy for the discourse is a topic coming from the text either thematically or based on the final line of the reading. The other major strategy that we see in the Gospel Homilies is a discourse that explains, or relates to, the liturgical occasion. Thus we have discourses relating to martyrs in Homilies 3, 13, and 27, and relating to the temporal cycle in homilies 21, 22, 25, and 29. There are a few cases where Gregory hurries through one section or the other, but these are the exceptions rather than the rule. Thus, when we talk about the broad macro-structure of Gregory’s homilies we see that he uses a two part model, an exposition of the text, then a following discourse. Sometimes his treatment of the Gospel is thematic or summary but more often than not it’s an orderly line-by-line procession through the text. This procession then leads to a discourse which tends to be based on a theme or the last line of the text but which can be used to teach on specific liturgical occasions as well.
Now, moving to the micro-structure of Gregory’s homilies, the overall structure prompts two related questions: 1) does Gregory have a specific method through which he engages the Scriptural bits in his verseby-verse section and 2) is there a common or consistent method to how he builds his discourses? The answer to both questions is “yes” and the methods he uses are, in fact, the same. What Gregory presents and how he presents it in the discourse is simply a longer and more elaborate version of what he does for individual lines or verses. I’m convinced that Gregory’s method is a tailored version of the simple classroom rhetorical exercises that we find in the Greek progymnasmata [pro-goom-NAS-mata] especially as Priscian translated and adapted them for the Latin West. The progymnasmata were the classroom exercises that taught Greek students of Late Antiquity the basic skills of composition. The key text for us is Priscian’s Praeexercitamina, a Latin adaptation of a rhetorical handbook attributed to Hermogenes of Tarsus, that Priscian completed around the year 500—a hundred years before Gregory’s homilies. As in his Greek exemplars, Priscian’s exercises identified certain literary forms, then demonstrated to students how to expound upon them through a clearly defined set of steps. Of the ten forms that appeared in these handbooks, the most important for our purposes are the directions on the elaboration of two related literary forms. The first is the anecdote, chreia [KRAY-uh] in Greek, usu in Latin; the second form is the maxim, gnome [NO-may] in Greek, sententia in Latin. The difference between them is purely formal because Priscian teaches his students to elaborate them in exactly the same way using eight fundamental steps. [You’ll find these laid out on your handout.] The elaboration begins with praise of the author, then offers a paraphrase of the saying, then an explanation, then a contrast, then an example, then a testimony from a respected authority. After that the elaboration concludes with exhortation. On the handout I’ve included the example that Priscian gives for the sententia—this will give you a brief sense of what Priscian (and Hermogenes before him) was trying to get at with these technical terms. My initial research indicates and I believe that it will go on to prove, that Gregory uses a version of these steps in composing his sermons. He drops praise, but otherwise borrows judiciously from the other steps, following their order, as it suits his texts and purposes. At this stage I won’t go so far as to say that I can give conclusive proof that Gregory uses these specific steps derived from this specific source. What I will say is that my continuing research indicates Gregory’s use of a pattern that closely parallels what Priscian presents. I offer as evidence the discourse that concludes Homily 35 which you’ll find outlined on your handout. As I mentioned briefly before, Homily 35 centers around the theme of patience. It’s the key to Gregory’s interpretation of Luke’s signs before the end, and the concluding verse “By your patience you will gain possession of your lives” is the natural subject for a discourse. To borrow Priscian’s terms, this is a classic maxim or sententia ripe for amplification. He begins with a paraphrase: “Possession of life is based on the possession of patience, since patience is the root and guardian of all of the virtues.” Now—there can be a fine line here between explanation which comes next and paraphrase. This particular example could go either way. However, explicit paraphrase is a common feature throughout the homilies often introduced with the formula “Ac si dicat” (As if to say)
He then moves to explanation. He defines the virtue, backing up his explanation with appeals to 1 Corinthians and Matthew. He then makes a contrast and speaks about the vice of impatience. Then he goes into a comparative section. This section is fairly extended and in the course of it, essentially applies a short version of the steps to his comparison itself. He begins the comparison with a citation of Proverbs. Then he paraphrases the Proverbs verse to present his point: taking cities means winning a battle outside of us—it’s more important and profitable to win the battle inside of us first. He then gives a long and drawn out explanation that discusses the moral psychology of patience as Satan attempting to incite a wrathful and impatient response through continuous spiritual warfare. He then cements the connection by moving to comparison within his comparison utilizing a series of rhetorical questions to compare the impatient with losers in a battle and the sick: “Whom do these resemble except those victorious on the field of battle, but later through their own carelessness are captured within the confines of the city? Whom do they resemble but those attacked with serious illness, who survive it, but die of a slight recurring fever?” After reaching a rhetorical height here with these questions he shifts gears and moves into his example section. He makes reference to the occasion, a feast of the martyrs, stating that the martyrs are the perfect exemplars of suffering in patience. He makes a contemporary turn, though, with an appeal to the Sons of Zebedee who shared the cup of Jesus; James died as a martyr, John did not but serves as an example of a spiritual martyr because he too endured suffering with patience. The application, then, is that Gregory’s hearers can do the same thing. He drives this home with another example—a colorful local story about the signs and wonders surrounding the death of a certain Stephen, abbot of a nearby monastery, whose holiness was grounded in patience. So Gregory gives us two examples, the martyrs themselves, then Stephen the abbot. Up to this point we’ve been following Priscian’s path almost perfectly. We start with possibly a paraphrase, certainly an explanation. Then we have a contrast followed by a comparison that leads into an example. If Gregory were in lock-step with Priscian, the next step should be a testimony. It’s not—at least not explicitly. Instead we get an odd little explanation of the three sources of the things that test our patience: some come from God, some come from Satan, some come from those around us. Each time I read this section I’m strongly reminded of John Cassian’s explanation of the three sources of thought in Conference 1.19: some come from God, some come from Satan, some come from within ourselves. Is Gregory citing Cassian or another patristic source here? I don’t know but I sure wouldn’t be surprised. In any case, he’s not explicit about the testimony or opinion of another who supports his point. Returning to Priscian’s steps, the discourse and the homily proper both come to an end with a final exhortation to patience suitably littered with imperatives. Looking through the exegetical portions of Gregory’s homilies, we see these same steps repeating themselves over and over. He moves from a paraphrase to an explanation to a comparison. Or simply from an explicit paraphrase to an explanation. He tends to use contrast the least. Testimony is always from Scripture—either citing the Old or New Testament. Although he’s including material from Leo and John Cassian and Augustine and Irenaeus and others he never refers to a non-biblical author (which may explain a present yet unattributed testimony in the discourse just discussed). Examples within his exegetical sections are biblical when they appear.
The Gregory of the Forty Gospel Homilies was no schoolboy; he was an experienced, powerful orator and rhetorician. He had no need to cling to a proscribed set of eight steps in order to produce a coherent homily on the Gospels. But what these homilies do show, I argue, is an experienced orator going back to the basics and creatively utilizing the boyhood framework as a starting place for his expositions. He begins with a basic two-part structure which he modifies as the need arises, and, when he fills these sections out, he uses the fundamental skills from his rhetorical education. I believe that future research will confirm through sheer volume of example that Priscian’s steps are the keys to understand Gregory’s microstructural method. Although I am continuing to do further work on Gregory’s technical language of composition and analysis of the sermons I believe that we can say with certainty that, yes, there is a recognizable Gregorian method of preaching.
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