The fourth century was a time when Christianity’s deepest questions were being debated and clarified: Was Jesus fully God and fully man or fully God and partially man—or vice versa? Were the Father and the Son one being or two similar beings? What about the Holy Spirit—was he also God? If so, how could there be only one God? The nature of the Trinity was as mysterious then as it is now, and only the best-trained philosophical minds could hope to offer the ancient world a coherent understanding of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
One man who dedicated himself to this cause was St. Gregory of Nazianzus. He was born around 329 AD to Christian parents from the Roman province of Cappadocia in modern-day Turkey. Like Van Gogh, Bach, and Mendel, whose paintings, musical works, and genetic breakthroughs went largely unnoticed during their lifetimes, Gregory experienced little of the impact that his work would have around the world. But it is in large measure because of him that we are able to pray every Sunday, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.”
Today Gregory is a saint of Eastern and Western Christianity and a Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church. But during his lifetime, Gregory was a would-be contemplative who endured many frustrations and setbacks. And yet, through all the storms, God’s plan for the Church was marvelously unfolding. As Gregory kept turning desperately to God, he stayed on the path of salvation and brought many others along with him.
“Despairing, I Turn to You.” From birth, Gregory’s mother, Nonna, dedicated him to serving God. But Gregory’s early years were focused on classical education, not his spiritual life. He started elementary studies in his hometown of Nazianzus and went on to study in the educational hub of Alexandria, Egypt. Then, by his twentieth birthday, he decided to cross the Mediterranean Sea and attend Athens’ world-renowned school of advanced rhetoric. But on the way, a fierce storm interrupted his ship’s course—and the course of Gregory’s life.
As waves clashed overhead, Gregory’s companions cried to their pagan gods for help. Gregory also cried out to his God, begging to be spared from death because he was not yet baptized. “Despairing of all hope here below,” he prayed, “I turn to you, my life, my breath, my light, my strength, my salvation.” If God saved him, Gregory promised, “I shall live for you.” Very soon a merchant ship passed by, and the crew managed to stabilize Gregory’s boat and save it from sinking.
That was the beginning of Gregory’s deepening conversion. He began his studies in Athens with a new fervor for prayer. Soon a fellow Cappadocian and Christian, Basil of Caesaraea, arrived at school. With Gregory’s help, Basil narrowly escaped a hazing attempt by classmates. After that, the two became roommates, attended lectures, studied together, and developed a close friendship free of envy or competition.
A Son Needed at Home. Gregory left Athens in the 350s and returned to his village. There he found it hard to balance the needs of his aging parents with his continuing hunger for quiet contemplation. Temporarily he moved to Pontus, Basil’s family estate that had been converted into a monastery. Gregory relished the opportunity to “flee this world” with its anxieties:
I could have filled my mind totally with Christ. I could have lived apart from others, elevating a pure spirit to God alone. . . . But I was overwhelmed by affection for my dear parents, and dragged earthwards by that weight. (His Own Affairs, 263–268)
Besides his parents’ physical decline, the “weight” that Gregory was referring to was his father’s pastoral work. Gregory the Elder had long been the acting bishop of Nazianzus, in accordance with Church practices of the time. And Gregory the Elder needed help, so he asked Gregory to come home. Urged on by the people of Nazianzus and seeing in his prayerful son a worthy candidate, Gregory the Elder pressured Gregory to become a priest. Gregory didn’t feel qualified, but there was an obvious need. So with great reluctance, he agreed, and he was ordained on Christmas Day of 361.
Preparing, with Prayer. Gregory wanted to help his father, but he also needed to reconcile his thoughts about the priesthood. So he returned to Pontus again for a retreat of several months. There, he weighed the advantages and disadvantages of the active life in contrast to the contemplative life he desired. Gregory knew he might fall prey to anxiety and burnout if he didn’t withdraw in prayer and solitude at times. But without opportunities to meet people’s needs through ministry, his road to charity would be narrow.
Gregory’s time away strengthened him so that by Easter, he was back in Nazianzus ready to work. From his earliest sermons, it’s clear that one of the most dizzying spiritual concerns that Gregory also pondered was how to instruct people about the Trinity:
This involves a very great risk to those who are charged with the illumination of others. . . . For both the unity of the Godhead must be preserved, and the Trinity of Persons confessed, each with his own property. . . . How difficult it is to discuss such important questions, especially before a large audience composed of every age and condition. (In Defense of His Flight)
Embroiled in Strife. Gregory was right—the stakes were high. Nearly forty years after the Council of Nicaea had “settled” the matter of the Father and Son being consubstantial (one God), public debate was still divided. Arians opposed the “one God” position. Another party felt that God was “above human understanding.” Most people, however, knew that political stability in the empire and peace in the Church could not be achieved without firm agreement about something as important as the Trinity.
For the next twenty years, Gregory did his part to promote the Nicene Creed through his preaching and writing. He even, somewhat prophetically, extended the unity of the Father and Son to include the Holy Spirit. But his preaching led him into many Church disputes and unwanted clashes with political leaders. Gregory frequently reacted by fleeing to a place of solitude. Alone he could bring his frustrations to God and compose careful writings that addressed the complicated issues at hand—letters that are still valuable to students of theology.
Probably because he spent so much time away gaining clarity about the biggest theological questions of his time, Gregory was recommended to become a local bishop. And over time, despite his efforts to stay out of the spotlight, he was recognized as the empire’s leading bishop promoting the “Nicene cause.” His time apart was not wasted because the Nicene Creed was about to be revisited in earnest.
Catastrophe at Constantinople. In the autumn of 379, a prominent politician’s wife asked Gregory to act as chaplain for a group of Christians who accepted the Nicene Creed. He agreed and came to Constantinople to instruct them further, but things turned violent. A group of Arian monks snuck into the chapel one day while Gregory was preaching and pelted him and his listeners with stones.
The Nicene debate was growing so divisive that the emperor summoned bishops from every region to decide on it with finality in 381. One of the bishops, Gregory of Nyssa, joked that no one could avoid Trinitarian questions. A person might start out discussing money, the quality of food, or personal hygiene, but they would inevitably end up getting an earful about whether the Son was begotten or unbegotten!
In this charged environment, an aging and infirm Gregory of Nazianzus was selected to preside over the Council of Constantinople, as it was later called. From his perspective, it was a disaster from the moment armed guards ushered him into the meeting hall. Gregory had hoped to be like the conductor of an orchestra, bringing unity out of different factions, but no clear position emerged.
Disillusioned and believing that he was the cause of dissension, Gregory resigned and went home to Nazianzus to spend his final years editing his writings in quiet seclusion. Just before he left Constantinople, he delivered an impassioned speech to the supporters of the Nicene cause: his last plea for the faith.
Gregory exhorted his listeners to keep promoting the Nicene view with meekness, so as not to achieve good by means of evil. He prophesied that God would grant them success, just as he had improbably caused devotion to Christ to take root across the pagan empire. “Three gathered together in the name of the Lord count for more with God than tens of thousands of those who deny the Godhead,” he told them with a confidence that, considering the circumstances, surpassed all reason.
Success Veiled in Disappointment. Having done all that he could, Gregory left Constantinople and the fate of the Church to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Seemingly against the odds, the council did adopt the Nicene teaching on the Trinity, and it is still the understanding of nearly all Christians today. Gregory probably considered his own life a failure—and objectively, it was full of disappointments and difficulties. But he was faithful to his promise at sea to live for God, and his perseverance brought extraordinary fruit to the entire Church for centuries to come.
Fr. Michael Kueber is the pastor at Assumption Parish in Richfield, MN, and a member of the Brotherhood of the People of Praise.