The following is my sermon for the Feast of Gregory Nazianzus
Almighty God, you have revealed to your Church your eternal Being of glorious majesty and perfect love as one God in Trinity of Persons: Give us grace that, like your bishop Gregory of Nazianzus, we may continue steadfast in the confession of this faith, and constant in our worship of you, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; for you live and reign for ever and ever. Amen.
Today we remember Gregory of Nazianzus, Bishop and Theologian. He was one of the Cappadocians, three men who were very important in the battles between the Arians and the catholics. Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil of Caesarea, and his brother, Gregory of Nyssa, all preached and wrote against the Arians and helped develop the orthodox understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity and the place of the Second Person in the Holy Trinity.
Cappadocia is an area in the nation we now call Turkey. Gregory was born in the town of Nazianzus, an obscure little place in the southwest of Cappadocia, a place which Gregory called “dull and unpleasant with few inhabitants.” Gregory’s father was a priest with a sect called the Hypsistarians, a group which reserved their worship for “the Highest.” This sect was heavily influenced by Zorastrianism, and the Hypsistarians kept symbols of light and fire on their altars. Gregory’s father was called an “illumined priest.” Gregory’s mother, Nonna, was a Christian, and spent many hours praying for her husband’s conversion. Apparently, the Hypsistarians used the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, because one night Gregory’s father dreamed that he was singing the first verse of the 122nd psalm: “I was glad when they said to me, let us go to the house of the Lord.” This dream urged him towards conversion to orthodoxy. What is strange is that this Hypsistarian became the bishop of Nazianzus. He was a relatively wealthy man of noble birth, owning much land. He built a church and was known for his generosity and gentleness. Nonna used to spend a lot of time in front of the altar of the church, gazing and praying, and when Gregory was born she dedicated him to God, much like Hannah dedicating Samuel to the Lord at Shiloh.
Gregory had a mystic, religious bent from an early age. He had a dream one night of two women who appeared at his bedside. They were dressed in white robes with veils which did not hide the brightness of their eyes. They told Gregory that they were Purity and Chastity, companions of Jesus, and that he should join his spirit with theirs, and then they vanished. This dream affected him very much and renewed his dedication to God. He decided early in life to become a man of letters, in fact, he had dreams of becoming a great Christian Orator. At the age of 13 he went to Caesarea to study, and it was there that he met his life-long friend, Basil. Gregory excelled in rhetoric and went on to study in Alexandria, Egypt, the city where Anthanasius was Patriarch. Alexandria was an intellectual center of the Greco-Roman world, and it was also one of the nerve-centers of Christianity. But Gregory’s desire to be a writer led him to leave Alexandria for Athens. On the way to Greece, the ship he was on was caught in a storm and almost lost off the coast of the island of Cyprus. The storm lasted for twenty-two days, and when they ran out of fresh water on board, most people on the ship were sure that they were done for! Those were the days when many people waited until they were near death to be baptized, as they were worried about committing sins after baptism, and Gregory, at the age of 17, was no exception. The storm had him terrified that he might die without being baptized, and in the midst of the storm he tore off his clothes and threw himself on the deck of the ship, weeping and promising that, if their lives were spared, he would devote himself to God. He prayed that God would give him “the gift of spiritual water from the deadly waves.” Soon a Phoenician ship came to them and supplied them with water and food, and the storm finally ended. Gregory studied in Athens for fourteen years, and his friend Basil joined him there. Another friend and classmate was Julian, the emperor-to-be. At that time Julian was a Christian, but by the time he became emperor he had converted to Paganism, partly due to his disgust with the politics of many Christians in the court of Constantinople. Gregory, Basil, and Julian would engage in debates with students from all over the Greco-Roman world, establishing the rhetorical power of the Cappadocians. At the age of thirty, Gregory left Athens for Constantinople, to visit his brother Caesarius. The brothers decided to return home to Nazianzus to visit their parents, who were getting quite old. Gregory decided to remain in Nazianzus and care for the folks. He seemed to lack any ambition; all he wanted to do was to read his books. He had already taken a vow of chastity, and now he added a vow of poverty. He slept on the ground, wore rough clothes, and ate only bread and salt and drank only water. He spent half the night in prayer and meditation, and spent his days supervising his dad’s estate, complaining about managing the slaves. He was a poor overseer because his heart was not in it. He and Basil kept up a correspondence, and Basil invited Gregory to join him in a monastery he was forming. He and Basil lived as monks for two years, and then Gregory returned once again to Nazianzus to continue his studies and writing. It was the year 361 and Gregory had returned to a town torn by the fights between the Arians and the catholics. Those with long memories remembered the Hypsistarian past of Gregory’s father, who was now bishop of Nazianzus, and they claimed that he had departed from the True Faith™. Gregory returned home to find a mob of monks ready to kill his father! He made a speech defending his father, which brought peace to the town. If a person was to become a priest in those days, they didn’t go before the Commission on Ministry or the Standing Committee, and they didn’t discuss their “call” with various groups. The people were the Commission on Ministry, and they grabbed whomever they thought should be a priest, dragged them before the bishop and had them ordained. That Christmas, the people of Nazianzus grabbed Gregory, dragged him before the bishop (his father), and demanded that he be ordained. Gregory was not prepared for this event; he had no desire to be a priest. He felt unworthy to be a priest. On the Feast of the Epiphany, he fled to his friend Basil in Ibora, where he stayed until Easter of that year. Basil convinced him that ordination was God’s will, and he returned to Nazianzus, where he delivered a stirring sermon on “the Despair of Being a Priest.” For Gregory, being a priest was serious business; he believed that a priest “must be cleansed before cleaning others; himself become wise that he might make others wise; become light before he can give light; draw near to God before drawing others near.” Gregory decided to submit to God’s will and work in Nazianzus. In the year 370 Basil became bishop of Caesarea. He wanted to move quickly against the Arians; he appointed his brother Gregory bishop of Nyssa, and ordered his friend Gregory to become bishop of Sasima, a little town twenty-four miles from Nazianzus. Gregory hated Sasima, and described it as “a detestable little place without water or grass or any signs of civilization. Here is nothing but dust, noise, screams, groans, petty official, chains and instruments of torture, and the population consists entirely of commercial travelers and strangers.” This appointment and the arguments between Basil and Gregory brought their friendship to the breaking point. Gregory decided to stay in Sasima only as long as he could do some good. He eventually returned to Nazianzus and served as Bishop Coadjutor to his father. He suffered two great blows not long after his return to his home town; both his sister and his brother died, one after the other. Then the new emperor took Nazianzus off the list of official cities and decided to level the town and build something else in its place. Gregory had to face down the troops, who were finally called off. Then his father died, and soon after, his mother Nonna. Then, making matters even worse, Basil, Bishop of Caesarea, died, and Gregory was devastated, since he had not repaired their broken friendship. Gregory retired from the world, working quietly on his fathers estate. Once again, he had no direction, no ambition, no desire to do anything. Nowadays we recognize symptoms of depression. He described himself as “a dead leaf floating in the stream.” Bout out of that dark night of the soul came a revived Gregory. He moved to Constantinople once again and began delivering sermons, which were well-received. The churches of Constantinople were filled with Arian clergy, but Gregory’s anti-Arian sermons were what the people wanted to hear. They proclaimed to the new emperor, Theodosius, that Gregory should be Patriarch of Constantinople, and the emperor agreed, appointing Gregory Patriarch of the capitol city of the Roman Empire. He only held the position for a few months; one of the canons passed at Nicea, a canon designed to defeat ambitious bishops, stated that the bishop of one See could not be transferred as bishop of another See. The emperor had forgotten about this canon, but Gregory’s enemies had not, and they worked to have him deposed. Before leaving Constantinople, Gregory wrote his great work on the Trinity, The Oratorio. Gregory left Constantinople and returned once again to Nazianzus, where he remained, writing his treatises. He remained on his father’s estate, but at times he would retire to a cave in the hills, where he would pray and mediate and sleep on a piece of sackcloth, befriending the animals who would visit the cave. In the year 389, when he was around 60 years old, Gregory died on his father’s estate. Except for a few small bequests, he left everything to the poor.
Gregory received the titles the Divine and the Theologian in the Eastern Church. He was a person who bowed to God’s will for his life, whether it was to become a priest or a bishop against his will or to defend the faith against he powerful Arians. He gave up the ecclesiastical throne of Constantinople, even though he really believed he was called to be their bishop, because he respected the laws of the Church, something I wish more of the current bishops on all sides would consider. And because he was willing to submit to God’s will instead of his own, he made a difference in the world, and that is why we remember him to this day.