Gregory of Nazianzus and Why Knowing the Nature of the Holy Spirit Really Matters

Gregory of Nazianzus played a vital role in exploring the nature of the Spirit

“During this time, Gregory, like Augustine, was consecrated priest against his will and with the acclamation of the people. Unlike Augustine, he literally ran away – back to Pontus. He returned a few months later, and apologized to his congregation, who forgave him slowly. Later, he produced a letter to explain his desertion: he was caught by surprise, he said. He also would have much preferred to live in solitude and contemplation of God.”

 

On the vigil of Easter in 379, a group composed mostly of monks and women rushed into a church, attacked the congregants, wounded the preacher, and killed another bishop. They were not terrorists. They were followers of the doctrines of Arius, a previous priest who had opposed the notion of a fully divine Christ.

A violent attack because of theology? It would not have seemed strange back then, when theology was seen as an urgent, practical matter. This attack happened as the preacher, Gregory of Nazianzus, was about to baptize new converts. To the followers of Arius, baptizing people in the name of three divine Persons who are equally God was a blasphemy, close to polytheism.

The other party, instead, took seriously Christ’s command to make disciples, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19) and tried hard to reach a better understanding of this mysterious triune relationship.

Today, many of us repeat the same formula as a simple convention. As we confess our faith in a Triune God, we seldom remember the struggle it took to clarify and fine-tune the language that allows us to talk about it. Much of this clarification was the fruit of a 4th-century trio of friends known as Cappadocian Fathers: Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and Basil of Caesarea.

Of these, Gregory of Nazianzus played a vital role in exploring the nature of the Spirit and in reaching a greater understanding of Christ’s nature and relationship with both the Father and the Spirit. In fact, his writings were so instrumental in bringing greater trinitarian clarity that he was graced with the epithet “the Theologian.”

He was also a prolific poet who considered his poetic vocation as a work done for God’s glory. He saw his poetry as helpful both to himself and to others who might be having similar experiences. Besides, he said, good Christian poetry can show that Christians can be skillful poets and artists.

Gregory’s Youth – Devoted to God

Much of Gregory’s poetry was autobiographical. In fact, he tells more about himself than any other Christian author before Augustine of Hippo. Like Augustine, he describes with touching honesty and powerful imagery his love for God, his passionate feelings for family and friends, his frequent disappointments, and his long-standing struggle between his necessary duties and his compelling desire to live an ascetic life.

He was born around the year 33 on the country estate of Arianzus, near Nazianzus, in the Roman province of Cappadocia (in today’s Turkey). His father, also named Gregory, had recently been ordained as local bishop. Gregory senior and his wife Nonna had already another child, a girl named Gorgonia. A second son, Caesarius, was born soon after.

Nonna had a great influence on her family. Gregory accredited to her his father’s conversion from a small heretical sect. She probably contributed to the education of her children. Gregory was very attached to her, and dedicated to her 36 of his epitaphs. Once he described a tender memory of Nonna running to him with open arms, shouting his name – an image that was obviously impressed in his mind.

By the time Gregory was 13, the family had sufficient means to send him and Caesarius to study in Caesarea, Alexandria, and Athens. Caesarius went on to Constantinople, where he became first doctor, then financial manager in the imperial court.

On his way to Athens, Gregory was caught by a terrible storm, which almost caused a shipwreck. “Hunger, storm, and winds were competing to end our life,” he wrote about thirty years later. His greatest concern was that he had not been baptized. By that time, delaying the sacrament had become common practice. Terrified by the prospect of dying in a state of sin, he vowed to consecrate his life – if spared – to God.

His cry to God, however, betrays the Scriptural knowledge which had been instilled in him since childhood. “Despairing of everything here below I looked to you, my life, my breath, my light, my strength, my salvation, you who terrify and strike, smile and heal, ever entwining the good with its opposite. I reminded you of all your former miracles in which we recognize your powerful hand.”[1]

God spared him, and Gregory arrived in Athens, where he stayed – still unbaptized – for more than ten years, while he studied under well-known teachers. There, he was reunited with a friend he had met in Caesarea, Basil. “We were all in all to one other,”[2] he wrote, continuing with a passionate description of their friendship. The two young men shared a strong love for learning and a desire to devote their lives to God by following what people of their times considered the most dedicated practice: a monastic life.

Gregory’s Pastoral Choices

After Athens, Basil followed his plans by retiring with like-minded friends in the mountains near Neocesarea of Pontus. Gregory returned home where was finally baptized and began to help his father in his duties, all the while taking frequent trips to visit Basil.

During this time, Gregory, like Augustine, was consecrated priest against his will and with the acclamation of the people. Unlike Augustine, he literally ran away – back to Pontus. He returned a few months later, and apologized to his congregation, who forgave him slowly. Later, he produced a letter to explain his desertion: he was caught by surprise, he said. He also would have much preferred to live in solitude and contemplation of God. The main reason, however, was that he didn’t feel “qualified to rule a flock or herd, or to have authority over the souls of men.”[3]

Besides the spiritual responsibilities, which Gregory perceived in all their actual weight, he had to take on a greater load of practical tasks to assist his aging father, including the unpleasant duty of dealing with his brother’s creditors after Caesarius’s death of the plague in 368.

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