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What would cause a mob of people to storm into an esteemed clergy’s quarters, and deposit a pale, bedraggled youth before him?
What would behoove this long-haired young man to cling to the feet of the (almost) bishop of Constantinople?
When asked, “Who are you and where are you from? What do you want?” the boy only tightened his grip, wailing and sobbing inconsolably.
Not being able to get a word out of the youth, Gregory of Nazianzus looked to one of the juvenile-chasing townsmen who declared: “This man is your assassin.”
Gregory (c.326-389/390) was born in present-day Güzelyurt (Arianzus) in the Aksaray province, near the Ihlara Valley. His parents were from wealthy families, and his father was the bishop of a nearby city known as Nazianzus. He was one of three children: an older daughter and a younger brother. They grew up exploring their large estate, known as Karabala (the namesake of the monastery-turned-hotel in today’s Güzelyurt). Throughout Gregory of Nazianzus’ life Karabala remained a fixture of refuge and solace to which he frequented often.
Translation: “Church Mosque” What else would you call a church that was converted into a mosque?
Near the center of Güzelyurt today you can find a beautiful early church, that was converted into a mosque (Cami Kilise) in 1924, known as St Gregorius Church. The belief is that Gregory had this built for the people of Arianzus and its date of construction is thought to be 385 (restored in 1835). Also, located on the road between Çiftlik and Niğde, in the village of Sivrihisar, the ruins of another church (Kızıl Kilise, or Red Church) stand, dating back to the 6th century, which is also dedicated to St Gregory. The location of the church is said to be very close to the family estate Karabala.
The church mosque sits in the lower left. What must it have been like when the hillside was full of lived-in cave homes?
At a young age he was sent with his brother to be educated in Iconium (Konya), Caesarea (Kayseri), and then to the other Caesarea in Palestine. Their educational pursuits led to Alexandria where Gregory left his younger brother, focusing on medicine, for the Hellenistic rhetoric halls of Athens. It was here where his life-long bond with St. Basil the Great burgeoned.
When Gregory of Nazianzus left Athens he was a changed man. He recounts a tale of being out at sea when his ship was overcome by a tremendous storm. It was so bad that he desperately feared for his life, and in those intense moments he cried out to God:
“I am yours now, too, as before. Accept me a second time [his mother wanted a boy and when Gregory was born he was dedicated to serve God similar to Samuel of the Old Testament], the possession of those dear to you, a gift from both land and sea, consecrated by my mother’s prayer and by overpowering fear. For your will I live if I escape the double danger, but if you abandon me you will lose a servant. Now again one of your disciples is in a storm: for my sake shake off your sleep and walk; let fear be stilled.” (On His Own Life)
From then on Gregory’s educational trajectory was altered, and along with Basil they pledged themselves to a life that centered on “God and a desire for higher things”. (On His Own Life) Gregory eventually returned to Cappadocia desperately seeking the quiet life, including celibacy, a simple lifestyle and a focused resolve on study and prayer.
IN HARM’S WAY
When Gregory returned from Athens his father would have been in his mid-eighties and in much need of help to serve the believers of Nazianzus. Gregory recognized the pressure his father was putting upon him to be engaged in public ministry, and responded in a pattern of behavior that followed him throughout his life: flight. “I made for Pontus, seeking a remedy for my pain from that holy friend of mine. For he was there practicing communion with God, concealed in a cloud like one of the wise men of old. Basil it was, he who is among the angels now through him I hoped to soothe the agony in my soul.” (On His Own Life)
STRONG IN WEAKNESS
In my study of the Cappadocian Fathers Gregory of Nazianzus has become my champion. I do not warm up to the commanding presence of Basil, who seemed to exude confidence and an unwavering assurance. Also, I tend not to gravitate toward Gregory of Nyssa, as his intellect and ability to express complex theological and philosophical constructs make me feel like a stupid ox. But, in Gregory of Nazianzus, I find a man who is acutely aware of his frailties and weaknesses, with whom I can relate. It was this trait that spurred on these temporary flights from responsibility as he was overcome with his inadequacies.
He did not allow his fear to paralyze him though. After a few weeks he returned from Pontus and plunged himself into the harmful occupation of ministry, aiding his ailing father in the duties of bishop. This was not his first choice as his heart yearned for a life of “retirement” where he could solely focus on study and prayer, but he was faithful to honor his father.
Early in 372, when Emperor Valens restructured the borders of Cappadocia in order to lessen Basil’s influence as bishop over the province, Gregory was hurled into a very unwelcomed position. In order to counter-act Valens “attack” the ecclesio-political Basil pressured his brother Gregory and Gregory of Nazianzus to be ordained bishops for two newly created sees within the Cappadocia region. Through the urging of his father, Gregory accepted the appointment but not with joy as he saw through Basil’s plan – he was merely a pawn in his political game.
“There is a staging-post halfway along the highway through Cappadocia, where the road divides into three, a place without water, without vegetation, completely uncivilised, an utterly dreadful and cramped little settlement. It is all dust and noise and chariots, cries and groans, officials, instruments of torture and shackles, a population consisting only of visitors and vagrants. This was Sasima, my congregation! This was what he [Basil] appointed me to, he who was surrounded by fifty suffragan bishops – what magnanimity on his part! He did this so that by creating a new see he would get the upper hand over another man [Valens] who was trying to seize it by force.” (On His Own Life)
But Gregory was not a push-over. He passively rebelled against his best friend and apparently never set foot in the village of Sasima, but remained alongside his father in Nazianzus, who died shortly thereafter. Gregory became de facto bishop even though he was never canonically installed in his father’s place. He was chastised by Basil for this, being accused of laziness and inactivity, but he refused to be used by his best friend for his own “private ambitions”. (On His Own Life)
After another “flight” to the region south of Cappadocia, known as Seleucia, where he took refuge in a women’s monastic community he became more and more involved in the post-Nicean battles over the identity of Jesus the Son and the Holy Spirit through his writings. During this time he emerged as the leading voice in articulating the classical doctrine of God for orthodox Christianity: an irreducible Trinity of consubstantial Son who was begotten of the Father, and a consubstantial Holy Spirit, who proceeded from the Father and was sent by the Son.
He was pressured once again to engage in public church administration, and in of all places the request was coming from the imperial capital, Constantinople! Thus, he proceeded to present-day Istanbul, and he was there in time to be invited to participate in the coronation of the new emperor, Theodosius, a subscriber to the Nicene creed. He was placed immediately behind him in the procession, the place reserved for the high bishop, even though he had yet to be canonized as bishop of Constantinople, and he describes his deplorable states as such:
“The moment had arrived. The church was in the hands of armed soldiers who had secretly taken up positions there. A seething mob of townspeople confronted them, like the sand of the seas or a snowstorm or the waves’ ebb and flow, torn between anger and entreaties, anger directed at me, entreaties to those in power. The market places were full, the colonnades, streets, every place, two and three storey houses were full of people leaning out, men, women, children, the very aged. There were scuffles, sobbing, tears and cries, all giving the impression of a town taken by force. I, the hero and the commander, with this sick and broken body of mine which could hardly breathe any more, caught between the general [Theodosius] and the army, my gaze directed upwards, moved on, supported by hope, until I entered the church, I don’t know how.” (On His Own Life)
The great city of Constantinople had been under the rule of Valens for the past 14 years and had become a bastion of anti-Nicene sentiment. Now, Gregory was stepping once again into harm’s way by essentially filling the role of bishop in a hostile environment until a new one could be installed by Theodosius.
It was during this time that our opening assassination caveat took place. The assassin stood before Gregory of Nazianzus, repenting that he had been charged with the duty of his assassination, but was overcome with a guilty conscience and could not carry out the deed. With the power to snuff this young man’s life out Gregory instead chose forgiveness. “May God save you. That I, who have been saved, should appear kind to my assassin, is nothing special. Your recklessness has made you mine. Consider how you might become a credit to me and to God.” (On His Own Life)
According to Gregory his reaction to his would-be murderer spread throughout the metropolis and he began to have his way with the believers. This was the way of Gregory of Nazianzus: a tender theologian who saw himself as a reconciler of disparaging parties, unlike others who seemed only bent on promoting their own viewpoints. “I could act like a chorus leader between two choruses…I could blend them with myself and thus weld into a unity what had been so badly divided.” (On His Own Life)
COUNCIL OF CONSTANTINOPLE
In 381, a council of 150 bishops was called by the new emperor Theodosius in order to help establish doctrinal unity throughout the eastern empire. Whereas at Nicea, some 66 years earlier, the discussion centered upon the status and activity of the Son, this council’s main concern was upon the Holy Spirit. At the end of the main theological discussions the subject turned to the election of a new bishop. Even though he was breaking a prohibition established at Nicea in 325 that forbade the transfer of bishops from one see to another by being the bishop of Sasima (as well as being de facto bishop of Nazianzus since his father’s death), he consented to the appointment. But after discovering that “some bishops from Egypt objected to the election, he withdrew his consent. He surrendered his appointment to the bishops when it was required of him, and never complained of his many labors, or of the danders he had incurred in the suppression of heresies.” (Sozomen, Church History 7.7)
Thus, again Gregory turned to “flight” and went back to his family home at Karabala in Cappadocia, where he remained until his death in 390.
There is so much to Gregory of Nazianzus’ life that has been omitted from this summary. For the sake of brevity I am embarrassed at what has been withheld: his desire to create a recognizably Hellenic body of literature for young believers, his writings on the difficulties of ministry, the scores of poems that have been studied throughout history because of the exquisite Greek forms he employed, or his five Theological Orations which have been considered as “the clearest, most economical, and perhaps the most paradoxical parameters for articulating [the mystery of the Trinity] and [which] most insistently emphasized the centrality of this Trinitarian confession for the whole of Christian life.” (Daley, 41.)
Gregory’s contributions extend well beyond the lines of poetry and theological prose he wrote during his stay on this earth. Personally, I believe his greatest contribution is his recognition and insightful portrayal of his plight on this orb, which helps bridge the gap of 1600 years that divide us from him. It is his humble heart that captures those who have divested energy and time to consume his writings, in which we relish in the discovery that he was so quick to admit his own inadequacies for the roles and positions in which he was being placed.
“I am myself preoccupied with these considerations [his inadequacies] night and day…They depress my soul and contract my thoughts and put a leash on my tongue; they do not lead me to considerations of leadership, or of reproving and directing others – but rather to thinking how I myself might ‘flee the wrath to come’, and in some small way scrape from myself the rust of wickedness. One must first be purified, and then purify others; first be made wise, and so make others wise; first become light, and then enlighten; first draw near to God and then lead others forward; first be made holy and then sanctify others, lead them by the hand, offer them understanding counsel…” (Oration 2.71-72)
Oh how I, as a follower of this same Jesus of Nazareth, need to hear this call to humility in light of such prolific religious hypocrisy around the world! It reminds me of something Jesus once said:
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from the other person’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)
Do you also find that leaders showing their frailties helps you to connect with them?
First built over 1600 years ago, this church was from Gregory for the people of his hometown.
As with the former church history posts, I am deeply indebted to the giants of this field of study. For more information on Gregory of Nazianzus, I highly recommend:
Daley, Brian E. Gregory of Nazianzus (The Early Church Fathers). London, 2006.
Gregory of Nazianzus: Autobiographical Poems. trans. ed. Carolinne White. Cambridge, 1996.
Meredith, Anthony. The Cappadocians. New York, 1995.
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