Monday, May 9, 2011

St Gregory Nazianzen, Bishop, Confessor, Doctor of the Church

Ecclesiasticus 39:6-14 / Matthew 5:13-19

Jesus is clear in his teaching that the true disciple is not to be meek and retiring, but rather is to make his proclamation of the Gospel boldly, publicly, so that all the world can see. You are the light of the world. A city seated on a mountain cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle and put it under a bushel but upon a candlestick, that it may shine to all that are in the house. Whatever we do, whatever form our witness will take, it seems clear that it must be unambiguously manifest, directed not to private goods or inner musings, but rather directed to the clear benefit of all.

That this is the teaching of the Lord Jesus is clear. How we ought to put this teaching into practice is not so clear. Consider, for example, the life of St Gregory Nazianzen. A deeply talented man from a life of privilege, both in society at large and within the Church, Gregory could easily have pursued any number of modes of living successfully, and we might well imagine that, whatever he had done, he would have made an invaluable contribution. However, what we see for much of his life is a kind of restlessness: from uncertainty in his youth as to the study of rhetoric or the study of philosophy, of his tension between following the life of a priest in public ministry as his father desired or an ascetical life of withdrawal with his good and holy friend Basil, his duties to a less-than-desirable episcopal see balanced against both his continued longings for quiet contemplation and his filial love in assisting his dying father in administering a different diocese, an unofficial position in Constantinople with much popular acclaim but which exposed him to attempts on his life weighed against official advancement to the see of Constantinople and imperial delegation to lead an ecumenical council of the Church accompanied by powerful resistance and complaints against the legitimacy of his promotion. In every stage, of course, Gregory endowed the Church with elegant, penetrating, and holy discourses in defense of the core revelations of the New Covenant: the mysteries of the Trinity, and especially of the Holy Spirit, along with the full truth of the Incarnation of the Word of God. All the same, it never seemed clear where he was to let his light shine before men that they may see his good works, and glorify the Father, who is in heaven. Even when he dramatically renounced the bishopric of Constantinople to retire to Nazianzen, he found himself physically exhausted in his work, and only in the final years of his life, in contemplative retirement, did he have any rest.

Of course, the fact is that Gregory is one of the greatest doctors of the Church. His writings have been crucial to the theology both of the Greek East and of the Latin West. It is hard to overestimate the contributions, the light shone before men, made by this restless, ever-moving, never-quite-satisfied saint, one of the few to bear the official title Theologos, "Theologian," once reserved only to the beloved disciple himself, St John the Evangelist.

What this suggests is that our restlessness, our uncertainty as to where and how best to witness to the Gospel, to the Good News of the Resurrection, is neither an obstacle to effective discipleship nor an excuse to draw back from public testimony on behalf of the faith. Wherever we are, wherever we find ourselves, whatever we happen to be doing, we can, like Gregory, always direct our work and state in life to proclaim Jesus Christ, once slain, now risen for evermore. We do not need to torture ourselves, waiting to find the "right" place in life before we can "really" get to work evangelizing. If even as great and insightful a saint as Gregory could be left unsure of how best to serve through the whole of his lifelong witness, we probably should expect no special revelations about our mission, either. Indeed, we do not need any dramatic invitations nor any unambiguous public candlesticks from which to shine. We need only the bold and certain confidence that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, that he has not come to destroy, but to fulfill, and that in the joy of the Resurrection, we find the fulfillment of the longing of every human heart.

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