07 February 2010

'Beauty of Speech Was Added to Thee'—St Gregory the Theologian


Today, 25 January on the Church’s calendar, we commemorated St Gregory the Theologian (329-390). According to Olivier Clément, he is ‘Cultured, too cultured; and probably the most profound among the Greek Fathers; known as the “Christian Demosthenes” for his mastery of the art of rhetoric, and “The Theologian”, that is, the celebrant of the Trinity, whose own life and human words to describe it are “theology” par excellence.’ [1] Here is the account of his life in the Prologue:

Born in Nazianzus of a Greek father (who later became a Christian and a bishop) and a Christian mother, he studied in Athens before his baptism along with Basil the Great and Julian the Apostate. He often foretold to Julian that he would be an apostate and a persecutor of the Church, and so it came to pass. Gregory was especially influenced by his mother, Nonna. He was baptized when he had completed his studies. St Basil consecrated him bishop of Sasima, and the Emperor Theodosius quickly called him to the vacant archiepiscopal throne of Constantinople. His works were manifold, the best-known being his theological writings, for which he received the title ‘the Theologian’. He is particularly famed for the depth of his Sermons on the Holy Trinity. He also wrote against the heretic Macedonius, who taught wrongly of the Holy Spirit (that the Spirit was a creature of God), and against Apollinarius who taught that Christ did not have a human soul but that His divinity was in place of His soul. He also wrote against the Emperor Julian the Apostate, his sometime schoolfellow. In the year 381, when a quarrel broke out in the Council concerning his election as archbishop, he withdrew himself, declaring: ‘Those who deprive us of the (archiepiscopal) throne cannot deprive us of God.’ He then left Constantinople and went to Nazianzus, remaining there in retirement, prayer, and the writing of instructive books until his death. And, although he was in weak health all his life, he lived to the age of seventy [scholars seem to agree that he was much closer to sixty]. His relics were later taken to Rome, and his head to the Cathedral of the Dormition in Moscow. He was, and remains, a great and wonderful light of the Orthodox Church, as much for the meekness and purity of his character as for the unsurpassable depth of his mind. He entered into rest in the Lord in the year 389 [2].

St Gregory has painted a memorable picture of his years of study with St Basil in Athens. He famously writes:

Two ways were known to us, the first of greater value, the second of smaller consequence: the one leading to our sacred buildings and the teachers there, the other to secular instructors. All others we left to those who would pursue them—to feasts, theatres, meetings, banquets. For nothing is in my opinion of value, save that which leads to virtue and to the improvement of its devotees. [3]

Also, The Great Horologion contains an interesting description of this period in St Gregory's life:

At first he studied in Caesarea of Palestine, then in Alexandria, and finally in Athens. . . . At Athens Saint Gregory was later joined by Saint Basil the Great, whom he already knew; but now their acquaintanceship grew into a lifelong brotherly love. Another fellow student of their in Athens was the young Prince Julian, who later as Emperor was called the Apostate because he denied Christ and did all in his power to restore paganism. Even in Athens, before Julian had thrown off the mask of piety, Saint Gregory saw what an unsettled mind he had, and said, ‘What an evil the Roman State is nourishing’ (Orat. V, 24, PG 35:693). [4]

After their studies at Athens, Gregory became Basil’s fellow ascetic, living the monastic life together with him for a time in the hermitages of Pontus. [5]

This last point leads to an interesting consideration. The two Cappadocians were not, like many other students in Athens, concerned primarily with a public career, but with prayer and asceticism. Furthermore, in the many studies of their dogmatic writings this does not seem to be taken sufficiently into account. St Gregory’s theology flows from his experience of God in prayer. Typically, Lionel Wickham seems close to acknowledging this in his introduction to the Theological Orations: ‘I do not think he often wrote (you could not say ‘never wrote’ of anybody!) what he had not himself felt about the divine, or at least aspired to feel.’ [6] But this idea that St Gregory wrote what he ‘felt’, even without the caveat ‘aspired to feel’, is so very weak. Fortunately, Christos Boukis has made things much clearer. He goes so far as to point out that St Gregory himself describes his theological method as comprising ‘purification, withdrawal, [7] and participation’ [8]. In the First Theological Oration, he speaks of theology as ‘knowing God’, not merely speaking about Him on the basis of one’s reason:

What is the right time [to ‘discuss theology’ or ‘philosophise about God’]? Whenever we are free from the mire and noise without, and our commanding faculty is not confused by illusory, wandering images . . . We need actually ‘to be still’ in order to know God (Ps 45:11 LXX), and when we receive the opportunity, ‘to judge uprightly’ in theology (Ps 74:3). [9]

St Gregory prescribes this method for others. We cannot doubt that he followed it himself. The result is agreed to be almost without parallel. Fr John McGuckin writes, ‘His writing on the Trinity was never rivaled, and he is the undisputed architect of the church’s understanding of how the divine unity coexists in three coequal hypostases as the essential dynamic of the salvation of the world.’ [10] The Great Horologion says of them:

His extant writings, both prose and poems in every type of metre, demonstrate his lofty eloquence and his wondrous breadth of learning. In the beauty of his writings, he is considered to have surpassed the Greek writers of antiquity, and because of his God-inspired theological thought, he received the surname ‘Theologian’. Although he is sometimes called Gregory of Nazianzus, this title belongs properly to his father; he himself is known by the Church only as Gregory the Theologian. He is especially called ‘Trinitarian Theologian’, since in virtually every homily he refers to the Trinity and the one essence and nature of the Godhead. Hence, Alexius Anthorus dedicated the following verses to him:

Like an unwandering star beaming with splendour,
Thou bringest us by mystic teachings, O Father,
To the Trinity’s sunlike illumination,
O mouth breathing with fire, Gregory most mighty. [11]

It is perhaps unnecessary to remind readers that the secular learning displayed in St Gregory’s writings is similarly astonishing. As I noted recently, Werner Jaeger observes, ‘His homilies are full of classical allusions; he has a full command of Homer, Hesiod, the tragic poets, Pindar, Aristophanes, the Attic orators, the Alexandrian modernists, but also of Plutarch and Lucian and the writers of the Second Sophistic movement, who are the direct models of his style.’ [12]

St Gregory’s use of Pindar in one place is particularly instructive. In his Funeral Oration for St Basil (Orat. 43.20), he names the poet and quotes the first line of Pindar’s Olympic Ode 6: ‘Such were our feelings for each other, when we had thus supported, as Pindar has it, our “well-built chamber with pillars of gold”, as we advanced under the united influences of God’s grace and our own affection. Oh! how can I mention these things without tears.’ [13] The ode in question is a poetic celebration ‘For Hagesias of Syracuse, winner of the mule race’ at a fifth-century BC Olympic games, for which the poet may well have been paid by the victor himself. [14]

Why does St Gregory refer to this poem? Jaroslav Pelikan observes that in this oration ‘the language of Pindar . . . came quite naturally to his pen’, [15] and though Pelikan is not making this argument, one could make a case that the Theologian only quotes Pindar because with his thorough education that was the first thing that sprang to his mind. But as careful a rhetor as he was, as someone who spoke quite deliberately, I firmly believe St Gregory thought there was something valuable, something significant about this poem. One could point out the importance of athletic prowess in ancient Greek culture, or the significance of the religious character of the games, which were held in honour of Olympic Zeus. [16] But neither of these can have been important to a Christian ascetic—if anything, St Gregory would have been troubled by this aspect of Pindar’s verse. [17]

For these reasons, it seems clear to me that St Gregory quotes this line solely because he believes it to be beautiful, and he values it as a verbal adornment for his friend’s memory. In his introduction to the publication of the Iveron Codex of Pindar’s Olympic Odes (Iveron Codex 161), Archimandrite Vasileios finds in Pindar’s ‘high poetry’ a ‘struggle for majestic expression, diversity of rhythms, musicality of language, precision of descriptions.’ [18] There can be little doubt that St Gregory agreed with such judgements.

In last year’s post, I quoted one interesting passage each from St Gregory’s Orations and his poetry. I refer readers to those, as well as to the various writings available at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (here). I also posted another poem on Thursday (here). Today, I offer Poem 2.1.78, Ad suam animam, ‘To his own Soul’:

You have a job to do, soul, and a great one, if you like:
examine yourself, what it is you are and how you act,
where you come from, and where you’re going to end,
and whether to live is this very life you’re living, or something else besides.
You have a job to do, soul; by these things cleanse your life.
Make me to know God and God’s mysteries.
What was there before this universe, and why is this universe here for you?
Where has it come from, and where is it going?
You have a job to do, soul, by these things cleanse your life.
How does God guide and turn the universe:
or why are some things permanent, while other things flow away,
and us especially, in this changing life?
You have a job to do, soul: look to God alone.
What was my former glory, what is this present arrogance?
What will be my crown, and what the end of my life?
Of these things inform me, and check the mind from wandering.
A job you have to do, soul: lest you suffer in deep trouble. [19]

In conclusion, here are the Troparion and Kontakion of the Holy Hierarch, from the Great Horologion:

Dismissal Hymn. First Tone

The shepherd’s pipe of thy theology conquered the trumpets of the philosophers; for since thou didst search out the depths of the Spirit, beauty of speech was added to thee. But intercede with Christ God, O Father Gregory, that our souls be saved.

Kontakion. Third Tone
On this day the Virgin

With thy theologian’s speech * thou didst destroy the entangled * webs of vain philosophers, * while beautifying the whole Church * with the robe of Orthodoxy * woven in Heaven; * and the Church, clothed in it, crieth with us, thy children: * O wise Gregory most glorious, * rejoice, O Father, * great theological mind. [20]


[1] Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism: Text & Commentary, 3rd ed., tr. Theodore Berkeley, OCSO, rev. Jeremy Hummerstone (London: New City, 1995), p. 335.

[2] St Nicholas (Velimirović), The Prologue from Ochrid, Vol. 1, trans. Mother Maria (Birmingham: Lazarica, 1986), p. 390.

[3] St Gregory the Theologian, ‘Funeral Oration on the Great S. Basil, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia’, Oration XLIII.21, here.

[4] One can’t help but think that this has the makings of a great film. The foreboding of St Gregory and the turning to evil of the Apostate have something of Star Wars about them!

[5] The Great Horologion, trans. Holy Transfiguration Monastery (Boston: HTM, 1997), p. 399.

[6] Lionel Wickham, ‘Introduction’, On God & Christ: The Five Theological Orations & Two Letters to Cledonius, by St Gregory the Theologian, trans. Frederick Williams & Lionel Wickham (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2002), pp. 13-4.

[7] The word used here is an interesting one: σχολή. E.A. Sophocles gives the definition as ‘leisure’ (Greek Lexicon of the Roman & Byzantine Periods [Cambridge, MA: Harvard U, 1914, p. 1064]), but according to Christos Boukis, it refers to ‘the state of tranquility, hesychia, and centredness’ (‘Η Θεολογία κατά Γρηγόριον τον Ναζιανζηνόν’, Θεολογικόν Συμπόσιον Χαριστήριον εις τον Καθηγητήν Παναγιώτην Κ. Χρηστού (Thessaloniki: Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, 1967), p. 158.

[8] Ibid., p. 157.

[9] St Gregory, On God & Christ, p. 27.

[10] Fr John A. McGuckin, The SCM Press A-Z of Patristic Theology (London: SCM, 2005), p. 152.

[11] Great Horologion, p. 399.

[12] Werner Jaeger, Early Christianity and Greek Paideia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1961), p. 78.

[13] St Gregory, Oration XLIII.20, here.

[14] Pindar, The Complete Odes, trans. Anthony Verity (Oxford: Oxford U, 2007), p. 16.

[15] Jaroslav Pelikan, Christianity & Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism (New Haven, CT: Yale U, 1993), p. 17.

[16] Although the comparison of a mule-race winner to a legendary, even semi-divine hero like Amphiaraus (one of the ‘Seven against Thebes’, who was worshipped at Oropos in a cthonic hero cult) may strike the modern reader as hyperbolic, even ironic, placing the comparison in the context of ancient athletics should lessen the effect. Not so, one expects, for St Gregory.

[17] Archimandrite Vasileios of Iveron has written an appreciative assessment of the purpose and spirit of the games (see ‘Ο Πίνδαρος και οι Έλληνες, Από τον αρχαίνο κόσμο στην καινή κτίσι’, Φως Χριστού Φαίνει Πάσι (Mt Athos, Gr.: Holy Monastery of Iveron, 2002), pp. 74-6), but it would have been more difficult for St Gregory, who was still confronted by the everyday reality of paganism, to have been so irenic.

[18] Ibid., p. 76.

[19] St Gregory, On God & Man: The Theological Poetry of St Gregory of Nazianzus, tr. Peter Gilbert (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2001), p. 170.

[20] Great Horologion, p. 400.

9 comments:

The Hermit said...

"[4] One can’t help but think that this has the makings of a great film. The foreboding of St Gregory and the turning to evil of the Apostate have something of Star Wars about them!"

Darth Julian! I love it!

I'm always interested in St. Gregory; I didn't know much about him, until I started attending a mission dedicated to him. Since then, I've gotten to know and love him--and not just for his theological writing.

aaronandbrighid said...

Yes, I find him the most appealing of the Cappadocians, as well as of the Three Hierarchs. Where is the mission you attend?

orrologion said...

‘Cultured, too cultured' is exactly how I feel when reading St. Gregory at any length. The rhetoric is just too overblown for this late modern. I enjoy him in pre-edited slices, but find it hard to stick with him for long periods of time. In some ways, this is similar to my reaction to St. Maximus' works.

I am drawn to them and their work in the same way I am drawn to philosophy - strongly, but ineptly. I just get lost when the terminology gets too specifically philosophical. A shame, for me.

McGuckin's book length treatment of St. Gregory, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 2001), is very good, but it is far from a hagiography so let the easily offended beware. I came away from the book liking Sts. Gregory and Basil less than I did before I started the book. Perhaps those better versed in academic criticism of the venerable would be less so. (Oddly, I didn't find McGuckin's book of St. Cyril of Alexandria as offense-giving; perhaps this was due to reading it much further into my Orthodox life than when I read about St. Gregory). A limited preview is available here:

http://books.google.com/books?id=7jervOqijlwC&lpg=PP1&dq=Saint%20Gregory%20of%20Nazianzus%3A%20An%20Intellectual%20Biography&pg=PR5#v=onepage&q=&f=false

(A limited preview of the St. Cyril book is here:

http://books.google.com/books?id=QxhR9ihUAWkC&lpg=PP1&dq=Saint%20cyril%20of%20alexandria%20mcguckin&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q=Saint%20cyril%20of%20alexandria%20mcguckin&f=false )

aaronandbrighid said...

Orr> Yes, I haven't read that particular book, but I've read its ilk. I don't suppose I find them 'offense-giving' per se, but it does bother me to see an Orthodox priest taking that sort of approach. No one denies that the Fathers were human beings with their own foibles, but approaching them in a crudely secular way does not help us 'understand' them any better. Quite the contrary. What's needed are more biographies that are scholarly, without sacrificing the unique considerations and emphases of Orthodox theology and spirituality in its approach to the Fathers. They are deified Saints, and Orthodox clergy should be writing books that make that clear. What good does it do to talk about deification in theology (like Russell's book for instance), but then miss the opportunity to show this process at work in the lives of the deified themselves?

Taylor said...

Hi Aaron - I just discovered your site a few days ago. Thank you for your wonderful work here! I am enjoying the fruits of your labor and will likely check in from time to time. One book recommendation will serve as a humble thank offering: I notice that you have one citation from Mary Carruthers' The Craft of Thought (from an earlier post). Have you read her volume The Book of Memory? I used it for a paper on Dante a few years ago, and have referred it mentally ever since. It seems to me that cultivating the arts of memory might be the solution for our age to the problem of information saturation. Her book gives some wonderful thoughts on how the ancients, including Dante, among others, did this.

I look forward to reading your daily notes as well as perusing the archives! ~T.

aaronandbrighid said...

Taylor> Thank you for your kind words! Unfortunately, I am not directly familiar with Carruthers at all. I have been aware of her books for some time, and would love to read them, but they are on the 'to read' list and not the 'already read' one. Of course, it would help if I possessed copies of them, or even if a local bookstore had them. It is in part an 'out of sight, out of mind' problem.

I do however know and cherish the book Art of Memory by Dame Frances Yates. It inclines me to agree with your point about information saturation. But of course the ars memoriae is such a discipline, I'm afraid cultivating it is much easier said than done.

I'd be interested to hear about your studies--thesis topic, school you're at, etc. Also, are you Orthodox, by any chance?

The Hermit said...

The mission is in Moundville, Alabama (a suburb of Tuscaloosa, home of the University of Alabama).

All three of the Cappadocians are favorites, it just depends on what I'm reading and what I need to hear as to which one of them is in ascendancy at any given time. Lately, it's been St. Gregory of Nyssa, but I'm sure it'll swing back soon.

And yes, none of the three of them were perfect; St. Gregory the Theologian had quite a temper (maybe there's hope for this sinner yet!), St. Basil was sometimes transparently manipulative (but, he was also transparent with living flame, when he met St. Ephraim the Syrian), and (as we all know) St. Gregory of Nyssa taught universalism. But their humanity is what makes them appealing, to me, anyway.

And since we're talking about the Cappadocians--I have a friend who says that St. Basil is proof that, from early times, women were not considered suitable candidates for ordination...otherwise, his mother and his sister would never have escaped his itchy hands. :)

Taylor said...

Hi Aaron - Your right that cultivating the ars memoriae of the ancients is probably beyond our capacity. However, I think memory, even on a lower level, is sorely neglected in our days. Until recently, most Orthodox monks would have memorized most if not all of the New Testament by the end of their life. Most Christians (Orthodox and others) would have memorized most if not all of the Psalms. Carruthers is encouraging because in her book she actually describes practicing some of the ancient techniques in order to memorize some of the Psalms. One of the more outstanding literary examples of memory is found in Blessed Augustine's Confessions. His friend Simplicianus memorized the Aeneid to such a degree that if someone mentioned a line from it he could recite the poem backwards from that line! Sadly, memory is not so appreciated in our days.

I am Orthodox, and a student at Holy Cross in Brookline, working on an MTS degree. They don't ask us to do a thesis here - my general interest is patristics, Greek and Latin. Like many Western converts, I am especially interested in 'bridge figures' of the first millennium of the church who show forth the unity of the undivided church.

I think we have a mutual friend, Mark Montague, who I see is listed as a contributor on a different blog of yours. Mark and I were at the same parish until recently in NH.

I'm sure you're familiar with one of our professors here at HC, Archpriest George Dragas - to follow up an earlier thread of this conversation, I think he is a good example of a professor and writer who is both scholarly and faithful to the traditions of the church. In this I think he follows his teacher, Archpriest Georges Florovsky.

aaronandbrighid said...

Taylor> Well, I'll definitely have to make it a priority to get ahold of Carruthers sometime soon! I agree with you too that we should be cultivating memory even on a lower level.

As for Mark, I see he has now followed your example and chimed in, so I run the risk of embarrassing him, but yes, he's a wonderful friend. I really miss our discussions!

I am of course familiar with Fr Dragas's work, though I can't say I've read very much of it. From what I've seen, I think you're quite right about him.