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CAPPADOCIA / St. Gregory of Nazianzus (The Theologian)

 

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A close friend and contemporary of St. Basil the Great (ca.330-379) the famed Archbishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, namely, St. Gregory of Nazianzus (ca.329-390), also known as St. Gregory the Theologian. The second of the three Cappadocian Fathers, St. Gregoryís life is also very closely tied with a vehement defense of the First Ecumenical Council, held in Nicaea in 325, and its definition of the Son as being of the same substance as the Father. Like St. Basil, Gregory was too young to have dealt with Arius.  His battle, like that of the other two great Cappadocians was especially against the later Neo-Arian movement headed by Aetius of Antioch and later Eunomius of Cyzicus, as well as imperial intrigues and unruly mobs, which for the quiet, reserved and melancholy Gregory were a source of enormous torment.

Gregory was born near Arianzus in Cappadocia.  His Father was the bishop of Nazianzus. Like Basil, he received the best education, in Caesarea of Cappadocia, Caesarea of Palestine (where Origen had taught in the previous century), at Alexandria and Athens.  It was in Athens that the acquaintance begun between him and Basil at Caesarea would be forged into a strong friendship (which Gregory would come to regret somewhat, without, however, losing his love and respect for Basil).  The two spent some time together exploring the monastic life in Pontus, another province of Asia Minor (todayís Turkey).

Gregory spent a good deal of his life doing things that others wanted him to do, but for which he himself held little desire.  Around 361 he was ordained to the priesthood by his father (who was also his bishop!) against Gregoryís will. In those days candidates for ordination did not have to write letters to their bishops requesting ordination.  He was chosen at the insistence of the faithful. For a few months he tried to flee this burdensome responsibility by returning to the tranquility of Pontus, but returned to assist his Father in the pastoral work at Nazianzus.  His friendship with Basil would be severely tested when Basil, acting as Metropolitan of Caesarea appointed Gregory as Bishop of Sasima, a dusty little town whose episcopal see Gregory may never have actually assumed. He continued to help his father, and was in fact appointed bishop of Nazianzus upon the death of his father (again by Basil).  Basil needed bishops who would be allies in the fight against the Neo-Arians who claimed to know that Godís essence is to be unbegotten, and since the Son was begotten, He could not be, in the eyes of the Arians, equal to the Father and truly God.  At times it was a numbers game  ó a power struggle over which view would prevail.  In the end, the teachings of the Council of Nicaea would win out, but not without great suffering on the part of its supporters.

One year after his appointment as his own fatherís successor as bishop of Nazianzus, Gregory resigned his position.  His parents and siblings were dead and Gregory was himself very ill.  He tried to take up again the quiet monastic life of which he had always dreamed, this time in Seleucia in Isauria.  Alas, this would again be interrupted.  When Basil died in 379, Gregory grieved for his friend, but also realized that someone had to continue Basilís fight against the Arians. This was also the year that Theodosius began to rule in Constantinople, which had become an Arian stronghold during the reign of Valens.  The pro-Nicene party was a tiny minority in the capital city.  But Theodosius was pro-Nicene and there was hope that the orthodox catholic teaching could be restored.  It was however a daunting task for the quiet and retiring Gregory, who was called to Constantinople to reestablish Nicene orthodoxy there.  This he did at great risk and amid enormous difficulties.  He started with a small house which he would turn into a church (aptly named the Anastasis, or Church of the Resurrection).  It was his eloquent and convincing preaching, backed by his own living example that won over the population of Constantinople.  The emperor Theodosius gave him the cathedral, which had been heretofore held by the Arians, and the populace wanted him as their bishop.  This he did not accept until the Second Ecumenical Council, the Council of Constantinople was held in 381 and the council fathers acclaimed him as holder of the capital see.  When shortly afterwards some new arrivals to the council protested his accession to Constantinople on the grounds that Nicaea forbade the translation or moving of bishops from one see to another, Gregory was more than glad to resign.  He returned to Nazianzus until a successor could be found in the person of Eulalius in 383.  Gregory then returned to the place of his birth, Arianzus, writing and devoting himself to a quiet ascetical life until his death in 389 or 390.
 
Gregoryís 45 orations were masterpieces of oral and written communication.  They included eulogies for his Father and for Basil, an apologetic oration explaining why he fled Nazianzus after his priestly ordination (which offers a deep reflection on the nature of the priesthood), an attack on the pagan emperor Julian who ruled briefly, but posed a great threat to Christianity by wanting to offer the empireís support to reestablishing pagan worship.  He also wrote an oration in praise of St. Athansius the Great.  But of all the orations, his Three Theological Orations against the Eunomian Arians and the Macedonians who denied the divinity of the holy Spirit are most important.  They are numbered as Orations 27, 28 and 29.  Oration 30 has been demonstrated to be a work by the well-meaning heretic Appolinaris, which was saved from destruction by being ascribed to Gregory.  His three great Theologial Orations are usually considered to be the reason he is known as St. Gregory the Theologian, an extremely rare distinction.

Gregory also wrote several hundred letters that are still existant, and some two hundred poems, especially in his retirement.  While many say that the Theological Orations won Gregory the title Theologian, it is not inconceivable that it was his poetry that won the hearts of many.  Some were written as easy-to-memorize counterattacks against Arianism.  Others helped to displace the pagan literature which had been dominant for so long. Others still are simple outpourings of this great manís burdened soul.  There are only two other saints who bear the title TheologianSt. John the Evangelist and St. Symeon the New Theologian (late 10th century).  Both of them were cherished especially for their poetry.  Johnís Prologue to his Gospel and Symeonís Hymns of Divine Love are both powerful poetic works which also powerfully express the deepest truths of the christian faith.  In Gregoryís day, the Arians were followers of Eunomius, who was known for his tedious logical syllogistic sermons.  Perhaps in naming Gregory of Nazianzus the Theologian, the Church was saying that poetry expresses the mystery of who God is and how God is better than any linear reasoning.


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