Wednesday, August 08, 2007

General Audience: Gregory of Nazianzen

~translated by Teresa Benedetta of Papa Ratzinger Forum

Dear brothers and sisters!

Last Wednesday, I spoke of a great teacher of the faith, the Father of the Church, St. Basil. Today I wish to speak about his friend, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, who was from Cappadocia (present-day Turkey) like Basil.

An illustrious theologian, orator and defender of the Christian faith in the fourth century, he was celebrated for his eloquence, and as a poet, he was refined and sensitive.

Gregory was born into a noble family. His mother consecrated him to God when he was born, around 330. After his initial education within his family, he attended the most famous schools of the time: first, at Caesarea in Cappadocia, where he first met Basil, future bishop of that city,; then in Alexandria, and above all, in Athens, where once again, he crossed paths with Basil (cfr Oratio 43,14-24: SC 384,146-180).

Recalling their friendship, Gregory would write later: "At that time, I was not the only one who felt veneration for my great Basil, for his reliable habits and the maturity and wisdom of his discourses, which induced others to follow his example, even if they did not know him yet...We were both guided by the same thirst for knowledge... This was our 'rivalry': not who of us would be first, but who would allow the other to be first. It seemed we had one soul in two bodies" (Oratio 43,16.20: SC 384154-156.164).

They are words that are almost like a self-portrait of this noble soul. But one can also imagine that this man, who was so strongly projected towards values beyond this world, also suffered much from worldly matters.

Coming home from his studies, Gregory received Baptism and became oriented to the monastic life: solitude for philosophical and spiritual meditation fascinated him.

He wrote: "Nothing seems greater to me than this: to quiet my own senses, emerge from my worldly flesh, be gathered into myself, not to concern myself with earthly things except for the most necessary; speak with myself and God, live a life that transcends visible things; carry in my soul divine images that are ever more pure, untainted by earthly and erroneous elements - to be truly a mirror of God and of divine things, to become more and more a mirror taking light from true light...; to enjoy future good in present hope and converse with the angels; leaving the earth while remaining in it, but transported upward in spirit" (Oratio 2,7: SC 247,96).

He confides in his autobiography (cfr Carmina [historica] 2,1,11 de vita sua 340-349: PG 37,1053), that he received his ordination with a certain reluctance because he knew that he would then have to be a pastor, to occupy himself with others and their concerns, and therefore no longer rapt in pure meditation. But he accepted the vocation and took on his pastoral ministry in full obedience, accepting - as often happened in his life - to be brought by Providence even where he did not want to be (cfr Gv 21,18).

In 371, his friend Basil, Bishop of Caesarea, against Gregory's own wishes, consecrated him Bishop of Sasima, a city of strategic importance in Cappadocia. But because of various difficulties, Gregory never took possession of the seat, and remained in his home city of Nazianzus.

Around 379, Gregory was called to Constantinople, the capital, in order to guide the small Catholic community there which was faithful to the Council of Nicaea and its faith in the Trinity, whereas the majority were adherents of Arianism, which was 'politically correct and deemed politically useful by the emperors.

So he found himself within a minority that was surrounded by hostility. In the little church of the Anastasis, he gave five theological discourses (Orationes 27-31: SC 250,70-343) to defend the Trinitarian faith and make it more understandable.

These discourses have remained famous for their sureness of doctrine and the masterful reasoning which made it truly understandable that this faith was divine logic. The splendor of their form makes them fascinating to this day. Because of these discourses, Gregory earned the appellative of 'theologian.' And that is how he is called in the Orthodox Church: the theologian.

This is because for him, theology was not a purely human reflection, much less merely the fruit of complicated speculations, but one that came from a life of prayer and holiness, from an assiduous dialog with God. And that is how a theologian discloses to reason the reality of God, the mystery of the Trinity. In contemplative silence, coupled with wonder before revealed mystery, the soul receives the beauty and the glory of God.

During his participation in the Ecumenical Council of 381, Gregory was elected Bishop of Constantinople and became the President of the Council. Almost immediately, a strong opposition was unleashed against him until the situation became unbearable. To a soul as sensitive as his, these hostilities were insupportable.

What was now happening was what he had lamented previously with these words: "We have cut up Christ, we who loved God and Christ so much! We have lied to each other in the name of Truth, we have fed sentiments of hate in the name of Love, we have divided ourselves against each other!" (Oratio 6,3: SC 405,128).

The tensions led to his resignation. Before a jampacked cathedral, Gregory delivered a farewell address of great dignity and effect
(cfr Oratio 42: SC 384,48-114). He concluded with these heartfelt words: "Farewell, great city loved by Christ...My children, I beg of you, guard the deposit of the faith which has been entrusted to you (cfr 1 Tm 6,20) and remember my sufferings (cfr Col 4,18). May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all" (cfr Oratio 42,27: SC 384,112-114).

He returned to Nazianzus and devoted himself for two years to his pastoral ministry. Then he retired definitively in solitude near Arianzus, in the land of his birth, dedicating himself to study and a life of asceticism.

During this time, he composed much of his poetic works, which were mostly autobiographical. De vita sua is a verse rendition of his human and spiritual journey, the exemplary journey of a suffering Christian, of a man who sustained a great inner life in a world full of conflict.

Gregory is a man who makes us feel the primacy of God and therefore he speaks to us, to our world: without God, man loses his greatness; without God, there can be no true humanism.

So let us listen to this voice and let us try ourselves to know the face of God. In one of his poems, he wrote, addressing God: "Kindly Thou art, who are beyond all things" (Carmina [dogmatica] 1,1,29: PG 37,508). And in 390, God welcomed back to his arms this faithful servant who had defended him with acute intelligence in his writings and who had sung his praises with such love in his poems.

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