Gregory uses any number of metaphors for the minister and the work of ministry, at least in passing. As well as the soul of the body he mentions the shepherd of the flock, the silver or gold coin, and the painter, or even the animal trainer. Other kinds of metaphors apply to the Christian’s (and especially the minister’s) progress in virtue: there is dye that must permeate a fabric, and fire that must kindle green wood.
The first one he really weighs in on is that of a doctor. Here in Gregory we have the root, or at least an early root, of what came to be called “the cure of souls.” A physician treats the body when ill, and guides the patient to health at all times. The minister, pastor, or priest does the same, not treating the body but the soul. If this is our agenda, he thinks, then our work is more difficult and more important than that of doctors. “For the guiding of man, the most variable and manifold of creatures, seems to me in very deed to be the art of arts and science of sciences.”
In this statement he highlights his vast difference from prevailing perspectives today. In our culture medicine is seen as a very high calling, with exacting training and standards, and with lifesaving impact. Ministers? Not so much. The faith has fallen on hard times, having become more a matter of personal interest, a hobby of sorts. Even as we rejoice in salvation in Christ, to portray Christian discipleship as the actual matter of salvation, genuine life and death is, in the post-modern world, to risk being perceived as a crank. There is little actual persecution in our society, and shame on us if we let ourselves shy away from being thought of as just a bit odd. Let’s be bold and say it: Gregory was right. In ministry we are not ultimately concerned with keeping an institution running. We are ultimately concerned with ultimate things–the actual life and death matters of living in relation to the God who made us.
If the minister is a physician of souls, the goal is healing, thriving restored inner health that has vast implications for the living we do in the world around us. It is the kind of life only found as new life in God and only describable as “eternal.” This kind of restoration of the human being is what you might say “salvation” means. The sixteenth century reformers boiled it down to justification–forgiveness of sins, reconciliation to God, as the solution to the central human problem. But to my eye the Gospels portray it as having some broader implications, especially when you see the way Jesus brought healing of every kind to those he encountered.
One of the challenges Gregory brings to our generation is in the process he says brings this healing. It requires growing closer to God. It requires becoming people who live lives appropriate to intimate communion with God. That is to say, he talks a lot about growing in virtue. This sets a couple points of the curriculum for the doctor of souls: If we are to be able to do this work we have to study how to grow this way ourselves. And if we are going to serve others in this role, we have to become students of human nature and the dynamics of spiritual life.
Gregory is quick to note that one of the challenges is that the patients dislike the cure so much they hide their symptoms. The same is true of us all, since we are all taking the cure. We dislike even the term “virtue” if it means a change of our daily lives. If the term applies to our hearts deepest motives, all the more will we resist. The causes of our problems, spiritually speaking, are hidden within us, and we’d frankly rather keep them that way.
If, though, we can give in to Gregory’s metaphor, and consider this our vocation, he has a beautiful and poetic way of describing the care we offer.
But if the scope of our art is to provide the soul with wings,
to rescue it from the world and give it to God,
and to watch over that which is in His image, if it abides,
to take it by the hand, if it is in danger,
or restore it, if ruined,
to make Christ to dwell in the heart by the Spirit:
and, in short, to deify,
and bestow heavenly bliss upon,
one who belongs to the heavenly host.
To exercise this marvelous work, Gregory says our chief task is the ministry of the Word–though it is clear from where he goes in his discussion that he is thinking at least in part of doctrinal teaching, investigating the Word for the sake of understanding the Trinity for instance.
How differently one must preach and teach to different kinds of people! How wise must one be to know what from Scripture must be brought to each person, and when, and in what way. Gregory insists on a foundation of humility–the kind of humility that moves forward day by day in the very life one seeks to preach, the life in which we grow toward God and in the restoration of God’s image.