06 February 2009

'The Highest Mind of Theology'—St Gregory the Theologian & Two Others

Today, 25 January on the Church’s calendar, we commemorate St Gregory the Theologian (†389), the Venerable Publius of Syria (†380), and the Venerable Apollo of the Thebaid (4th c.). Concerning the first two, one can find brief accounts in the usual online sources (here and here), and here one can read a longer Life of St Gregory the Theologian, translated by Fr Christopher Stade from The Great Collection of the Lives of the Saints of St Demetrius of Rostov.

The Kontakion for St Gregory the Theologian calls him θεολογίας ὁ νοῦς ὁ ἀκρότατος, ‘the highest mind [nous] of theology’. According to Johannes Quasten, he was known in the East as the ‘Christian Demosthenes’, being ‘one of the greatest orators of Christian antiquity’, and Quasten also characterises him as ‘the humanist among the theologians of the fourth century in so far as he preferred quiet contemplation and the union of ascetic piety and literary culture to the splendor of an active life and ecclesiastical position’ (Patrology, Vol. III: The Golden Age of Greek Patristic Literature from the Council of Nicaea to the Council of Chalcedon [Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1988], p. 236). I shall excerpt two of his works here: firstly, his ‘Theological Orations’, and secondly, his poetry.

Concerning the ‘Oration’ (‘Oration 27’, trans. Frederick Williams, On God and Christ: The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius [Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 2002], pp. 26-7, 27-8), I still recall with gratitude being handed a photocopy of it in Ancient Greek and thereby forced to study it in Lampros Siasos’s ‘philosophy’ class in Thessaloniki. Let it stand as a reproach to me in more ways than one.

3. Discussion of theology is not for everyone, I tell you, not for everyone—it is no such inexpensive or effortless pursuit. Nor, I would add, is it for every occasion, or every audience; neither are all its aspects open to inquiry. It must be reserved for certain occasions, for certain audiences, and certain limits must be observed. It is not for all people, but only for those who have been tested and have found a sound footing in study, and more importantly, have undergone, or at the very least are undergoing, purification of body and soul. For one who is not pure to lay hold of pure things is dangerous, just as it is for weak eyes to look at the sun’s brightness.

. . .

4. Yet I am not maintaining that we ought not to be mindful of God at all times—my adversaries, every ready and quick to attack, need not pounce on me again. It is more important that we should remember God than that we should breathe: indeed, if one may say so, we should do nothing else besides. I am one of those who approve the precept that commands us to ‘meditate day and night’ (Ps. 1:2; Josh. 1:8), to tell of the Lord ‘evening, and morning, and at noon’ (Ps. 54:19), and to ‘bless the Lord at all times’ (Ps. 33:1), or in the words of Moses, ‘when we lie down, when we rise up, when we walk by the way’ (Deut. 6:7), or when we do anything else whatever, and by this mindfulness be molded to purity. So it is not continual remembrance of God I seek to discourage, but continual discussion of theology.

Although he took the opportunity of St Gregory’s feastday last year to post a wonderful poem by Fr John McGuckin (reposted last month by Sr Macrina), the still-missed Felix Culpa did post from St Gregory’s own poems last March. I have chosen a small portion of a slightly longer one than the two he chose (‘On his own Verses’, Poem 2.1.39, In suos versus [PG 37,1329-1336]; Peter Gilbert, trans., On God and Man: The Theological Poetry of St Gregory of Nazianzus [Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 2001], p. 153). I have also reproduced the icon—by Aidan Hart—that he used for Fr McGuckin’s poem.

Seeing many writing in this present life
words without measure, smoothly rolling,
who pass most time in drudgeries
producing only a hollow logorrhea,
and how they write so brazenly
things clogged full of idiocies,
as sand fills the sea or fruit-flies Egypt:
I’ve found this to be
the single sweetest counsel, that,
pitching out all other word, one hold
on only to those inspired by God,
as a calm harbor for those who flee the storm.
For if the Scriptures provide such a handle
—the Spirit—it’s for you the wisest course
that you should be a citadel
from all vain words, for those who’ve started poorly.

The Venerable Publius was an anchorite who lived in a small hut near the Euphrates in the 4th century. In his Religious History (A History of the Monks of Syria, trans. R.M. Price [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1985], pp. 58-9), Theodoret of Cyrrhus writes of him:

2. After distributing these [his possessions], according to divine law, to those who needed them, and freeing himself from every worldly care, he took on one care to replace them all, the service of the One who had called him, and turning this over in his soul, continued night and day considering and examining how to increase it. For this reason his toil increased continually and was intensified each day; yet it was sweet and full of pleasure, driving satiety far away. For no one ever saw him taking a rest for even a small part of the day, but psalmody was succeeded by prayer, prayer by psalmody, and both by the reading of the divine oracles; then came attending to visitors, and then some other of the necessary tasks.

Also, when other monks came to St Publius to be accepted as disciples—

4. . . . He told them to live in common and stir each other on—one was to imitate the gentleness of another, who in his turn was to mix gentleness with the zeal of the first, while yet another, while giving a lesson keeping vigils, would receive a lesson in fasting. ‘It is by so getting what we lack from others’ he said, ‘that we shall achieve the most perfect virtue. Just as in city markets one sells bread, another vegetables, one trades in clothes while another makes shoes, and so supplying their needs from each other they live more contentedly—the one who provides a piece of clothing receives a pair of shoes in exchange, while the one who buys vegetables supplies bread—, so it is right that we should supply each other with the precious components of virtue.

Finally, one of the few biographical details I know of concerning the Venerable Apollo of the Thebaid is the following, in the Gerontikon, Apollo 2 (Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, rev. ed. [Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian, 1984], p. 36):

It was said of a certain Abba Apollo of Scetis, that he had been a shepherd and was very uncouth. He had seen a pregnant woman in the field one day and being urged by the devil, he had said, ‘I should like to see how the child lies in her womb.’ So he ripped her up and saw the foetus. Immediately his heart was troubled and, filled with compunction, he went to Scetis and told the Fathers what he had done. Now he heard them chanting, ‘The years of our age are three score years and ten, and even by reason strength fourscore; yet their span is but toil and trouble’ (Ps. 90:10). He said to them, ‘I am forty years old and I have not made one prayer; and now, if I live another year, I shall not cease to pray God that he may pardon my sins.’ In fact, he did not work with his hands but passed all his time in prayer, saying, ‘I, who as man have sinned, do you, as God, forgive.’ So his prayer became his activity by night and day. A brother who lived with him heard him saying, ‘I have sinned against you, Lord; forgive me, that I may enjoy a little peace.’ And he was sure that God had forgiven him all his sins, including the murder of the woman; but for the child’s murder, he was in doubt. Then an old man said to him,’ God has forgiven you even the death of the child, but he leaves you in grief because that is good for your soul.’

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