Saturday, May 9, 2009

Gregory of Nazianzus: The Reluctant Hierarch

SS. Basil the Great of Caesarea, John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nazianzus

If they were a singing group today, they'd probably be billed as Three Holy Hierarchs, which is how they're referred to in Eastern Church circles.  All of them were bishops: John and Gregory,   both of Constantinople.  All were writers.  Basil and Gregory are also part of another triumvirate, along with Gregory of Nyssa: known as the Cappadocian Fathers.  High-powered hierarchs, for sure!

Gregory was not only a P.K. ("priest's kid"), but also a B.K.: son of a bishop! His father, Gregory, was a convert to Christianity, thanks to Gregory's mother, Nonna.  Gregory, Jr. also had a brother, Caesarius.  In their hometown of Arianzus, near Nazianzus, in southwest Cappadocia, they studied rhetoric under their uncle, Amphylokhios, who is also listed as a saint in quite a few places online, but with no specifics about him.  (There's another, younger Amphylokhios, also a saint and bishop, a contemporary of the Nazianzens and one of their students, apparently a cousin of Gregory's and a good friend of Basil.)

Gregory went off to Caesarea, Alexandria, and Athens for advanced studies, and in Athens met Basil, who became a life-long, trusted friend, able to speak his mind to Gregory when he had to, or when Gregory deserved it.  He also studied with Julian, the future emperor.  Julian would be tagged as "the Apostate", having repudiated Christianity and having tried to re-introduce paganism, while Gregory became known as "Theologos", "The Theologian", for his defence of the orthodox Christian faith.  And we thought our nicknames were bad!

Once he finished his education Gregory returned to Arianzus and was baptized, at age 26, by his father.  Three years later he joined Basil at a hermitage near the river Iris in Pontus, to live as hermit monks.  Basil put together guidelines during this time which would later form the basis of Eastern monasticism.  That lasted for only three years because old Bishop Gregory, now 80, asked Gregory, Jr. to come home and help him administrate the diocese.  Gregory got there on Chrismtas Day, 361, and Bishop Gregory's surprise Christmas gift for his son was to forcibly and without warning or Gregory's agreement ordain Gregory a priest.  Surprise, surpise!  Gregory wasn't at all amused, and hightailed it back to the hermitage, grumbling under his breath about "the unwelcome tyranny of the priesthood" (who of us clerics hasn't had similar thoughts!), and stayed there for the next ten weeks.  

Apparently "Catholic guilt" was alive and well even in those days, because Gregory became remorseful and returned to his father, preaching his first sermon at Nazianzus.  His second sermon, one of his most famous, was about the dignity, duties, and spiritual dangers of the priesthood, all in the context of his own recent lived experience.  The sermon was apparently a "keeper", because later Chrysostom and Gregory the Great both borrowed ideas from it in writing their treatises, John Chrysostem, on the priesthood, and Gregory, on pastoral care.  As a priest, Gregory labored for 11 more years in Nazianzus.  

In 372 Basil, who, in 370, became a bishop and metropolitan of the province of Cappadocia, invited Gregory to consent to being consecrated as the bishop of the small diocese of Sasima.  Predictably, Gregory stonewalled Basil for awhile, but eventually he gave in after old Bishop Gregory and Basil begged and cajoled him to accept.  His introduction into episcopal life was to have the governor of the province, who had bought into the Arian heretical movement, forbid Gregory to take over his see! What's a bishop to do?! Gregory simply stayed put in Nazianzus and assisted his dad until old Gregory died a year later.  

Gregory still longed for the peaceful eremetical life.  After reluctantly (what else?) agreeing to be the interim bishop of Nazianzus, he was beset by several serious illnesses, severe enough to give him the out which he needed; so he retired to Seleucia and lived as a desert recluse until 380.  In the meantime, his beloved friend and fellow hermit, Basil, died at age 50 in 379.  Gregory was devastated and turned to writing for solace, composing 12 poetic epigrams in memory of Basil and, in 381, preached his famous elaborate eulogy (some 62 folio pages; probably he didn't actually preach all of it!) on Basil at Basil's former diocese, Caesarea.  Here's an excerpt from the close of the eulogy.  You can almost feel the depth of Gregory's love and respect for Basil, the sense of his own physical frailty and weariness, and his yearning to be with his friend in the life beyond:

"...And now [Basil] is in heaven, where, if I mistake not, he is offering sacrifices for us, and praying for the people, for though, he has left us, he has not entirely left us. While I, Gregory, who am half dead, and, cleft in twain, torn away from our great union, and dragging along a life of pain which runs not easily, as may be supposed, after separation from him, know not what is to be my end now that I have lost my guidance... 

Come hither then, and surround me, all ye members of his choir, both of the clergy and the laity, both of our own country and from abroad; aid me in my eulogy, by each supplying or demanding the account of some of his excellences. Regard, ye occupants of the bench, the lawgiver; ye politicians, the statesman; ye men of the people, his orderliness; ye men of letters, the instructor; ye virgins, the leader of the bride; ye who are yoked in marriage, the restrainer; ye hermits, him who gave you wings; ye cenobites, the judge; ye simple men, the guide; ye contemplatives, the divine; ye cheerful ones, the bridle; ye unfortunate men, the consoler, the staff of hoar hairs, the guide of youth, the relief of poverty, the steward of abundance. Widows also will, I imagine, praise their protector, orphans their father, poor men their friend, strangers their entertainer, brothers the man of brotherly love, the sick their physician, whatever be their sickness and the healing they need, the healthy the preserver of health, and all men him who made himself all things to all that he might gain the majority, if not all.

This is my offering to thee, Basil, uttered by the tongue which once was the sweetest of all to thee, of him who was thy fellow in age and rank. If it have approached thy deserts, thanks are due to thee, for it was from confidence in thee that I undertook to speak of thee. But if it fall far short of thy expectations, what must be our feelings, who are worn out with age and disease and regret for thee? Yet God is pleased, when we do what we can. Yet mayest thou gaze upon us from above, thou divine and sacred person; either stay by thy entreaties our thorn in the flesh given to us by God for our discipline, or prevail upon us to bear it boldly, and guide all our life towards that which is most for our profit. And if we be translated, do thou receive us there also in thine own tabernacle, that, as we dwell together, and gaze together more clearly and more perfectly upon the holy and blessed Trinity, of Which we have now in some degree received the image, our longing may at last be satisfied, by gaining this recompense for all the battles we have fought and the assaults we have endured. Such are our words on thy behalf...

Gregory went on to become the bishop of Constantinople, and suffered much ridicule and worse from heretics, civil authorities, and even from some of the sophisticates in the general public who judged him by his rather simple and poor attire and manner of living.  He continued his ministry of preaching and teaching, which caught the ear of even pagans and heretics.  He attracted other Church notables: Evagrius of Pontus, who became his archdeacon, and even the great St. Jerome from the Syrian deserts who became a virtual Gregory-groupie.

In his last years Gregory left Constantinople and returned to Nazianzus.  He died in 389 at the age of 60.  What Gregory left as a legacy to Christianity is nothing short of astounding!  46 orations, 239 letters, 158 poems, a 2000-line poetic autobiography, and 227 epigrams.

Not bad for a reluctant hierarch who just wanted to be a desert hermit!

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