Gregory of Nazianzus (c. 329-390), Archbishop of Constantinople, was a leading figure in the church and one of the most learned men of his time.
There once was an aristocrat. He strolled his estate with feathery ease, content to pass underfoot his inheritance. He absented himself for months at a time while the staff labored on. His concerns were not for the dirt and the dung, not for toiling and begetting. He owned the hills. And yet for years he disquieted his mind with metaphysical query, with a hungering and thirsting for righteousness. If not quite a democratic love of neighbor, it was almost a purity in heart that might see God.
There once was a man of letters. Rumored he was to have read the most. And not the most but the best. Shades of Plato and Aristophanes dropped from his speech like honey sliding down the bottle. He stood before the congregation in Christian exhortation, and the whole Hellenic tradition mingled with his Scriptures. Some would say they completed each other, but I say they danced.
Once there was a bishop. Spouse of the savior and hawk of the church. Bold in pen and meek in presence: imitator of the Apostle. Full nobility of rank and learning, draped on the mantle of the poor, meek, pathetic ekklesia that will inherit the earth. He walked in the city of venom, that spiritual whorehouse of the empire, and unleashed an arsenal for the triune truth. Nearly assassinated, this man knowingly poured vinegar on baking soda with one dogged goal: to dissolve it. Let nothing block the pure knowledge of God, so that nothing may prohibit the ecstatic vision of him.
There once was a coward. One man runs and looks back because he is followed; another sprints for his life and does not, because no one actually pursues him. Gregory was ordained against his will, so he fled to his friend’s estate; he was consecrated bishop of an inferior town, so he made off for home. He criticized the emperor only when it was safe to do so. He shook under the weight of his overbearing father. Never doubting his superiority, he was ever keeping his eye on an escape route.
Once there walked a rhetor. The Christian Demosthenes dropped jaws, bound his hearers, flayed the heretics. The people erupted in laughter, they interrupted only to catch the barb of his in-game reflexes, they saw with their eyes the pictures he painted with words. In twenty minutes he accumulated a hundred Scripture references. Students for years read his sermons as classical theology, and students for years read his sermons as the highest rhetoric of late antiquity.
There once was a quiet man. It was the century of monasticism’s first flourishing: Basil the Great was gathering the young religious to himself in communal order and work, wild anti-social firebrands wandered in and out of the cities denouncing everything, and monks everywhere were the height of fervor. But there sat Gregory, alone with a book. His ascetic ideal was simplicity, celibacy, and a healthy bit of solitude. No community and no true responsibility, for the labor of the soul had its own sorrows. This was a man who vacated Constantinople at the peak of his powers to meander on the beach and watch the forlorn waves and consider the divine nature. This was a man who took a three year retreat in the middle of his career. In a convent he settled like dust to pursue theological study and contemplation in determined anonymity. This was a man who prayed.
This was a man.
[Note: all biographical information is from McGuckin, St. Gregory of Nazianzus (2001)]
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.