During his Aug. 22 general audience, Pope Benedict XVI continued his catechesis on St. Gregory of Nazianzus, which he began at his last general audience on Aug. 8. The Holy Father highlighted Gregory’s teachings: his defense of the truths of the face such as the Trinity and Christ’s humanity amid heresy and dissent, his emphasis on the need for the love of Christ and our neighbor to shine forth among Christians, and the pursuit of God in prayer in order to grow in personal holiness.
Dear brothers and sisters,
In the course of this series of teachings that depict some of the great Fathers and Doctors of the Church, I spoke last time about St. Gregory of Nazianzus, a bishop from the fourth century. Today I would like to complete my portrait of this great teacher and attempt to summarize some of his teachings.
Reflecting on the mission that God had entrusted to him, St. Gregory of Nazianzus arrived at the following conclusion: “I have been created to ascend to God through my actions” (see Oratio 14, 6 De Pauperum Amore: PG 35,865).
Indeed, he used his talents as a writer and preacher to serve God and the Church. He wrote numerous discourses, homilies and panegyrics, as well as many letters and poetic works (nearly 18,000 verses!). His level of activity was truly prodigious. He understood that this was the mission God had entrusted to him: “As a servant of the word, I am committed to the ministry of the word; I will never willingly neglect this good gift. I appreciate and enjoy this vocation; it gives me more joy than everything else put together” (see Oratio 6, 5: SC 405,134; Oratio 4,10).
St. Gregory of Nazianzus was a meek man and throughout his life he always sought to promote peace in the Church of his time, which was torn apart by dissension and heresy. With an audacity inspired by the Gospel, he endeavored to overcome his own shyness in order to proclaim the truth of the faith. He felt a deep desire to draw close to God and to unite himself to him.
He himself expresses this in his poetry, where he writes that amid the “great waves of the ocean of life, tossed here and there by the impetuous winds ... there was only one thing that I wanted — my only one treasure — consolation and oblivion of weariness, the light of the Holy Trinity” (see Carmina [historica] 2, 1, 15: PG 37, 1250ff).
By defending the faith proclaimed at the Council of Nicaea, Gregory made the light of the Trinity shine forth: one God in three equal yet distinct Persons — the Father, Son and Holy Spirit — “the triple light that is united in one single splendor” (see Inno vespertino: Carmina [historica] 2, 1, 32: PG 37,512). Therefore, Gregory, following the path of St. Paul (see 1 Corinthians 8:6), affirms that “for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things; one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things; and one Holy Spirit, in whom are all things” (see Oratio 39, 12: SC 358,172).
Gregory put an important emphasis on the fullness of Christ’s humanity. In order to redeem man in his totality — body, soul and spirit — Christ assumed all the components of human nature. Otherwise, man would not have been saved.
Opposing the heresy of Apollinaris, who maintained that Jesus Christ had not assumed a rational soul, Gregory explained this problem in the light of the mystery of salvation: “For that which has not been assumed has not been healed” (see Epistola 101, 32: SC 208,50), and if Christ had not been “endowed with rational intellect, how could he have been a man?” (see Epistola 101,34: SC 208,50).
It was precisely our intellect — our reason — that needed and still needs a relationship — an encounter — with God in Christ. By becoming man, Christ made it possible for us, in turn, to become like him.
St. Gregory of Nazianzus exhorts us with the following words: “Let us seek to be like Christ, since Christ himself became like us; to be like gods through him, since he, by means of us, became man. He took the worst upon himself in order to give us the best” (Oratio 1, 5: SC 247,78).
Mary, who gave Christ his human nature, is truly the Mother of God (Theotókos: see Epistola 101, 16: SC 208, 42). In light of her important mission, she was “pre-purified” (Oratio 38, 13: SC 358, 132). This teaching is a sort of distant prelude to the dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Mary is offered as a model for Christians, especially for virgins, and as a source of help whom we should invoke in times of need (see Oratio 24, 11: SC 282, 60-64).
Gregory reminds us that, as human beings, we need to be in solidarity with one another. “‘We, though many, are one in Christ’ (see Romans 12:5),” he writes, “rich and poor, slaves and freemen, healthy and sick. There is one head from which everything originates: Jesus Christ. And as happens with the members of one single body, each one takes care of the other — everybody for everyone.”
Later, referring to the sick and those in need, he arrives at the following conclusion: “This is the only salvation for our flesh and our souls: charity toward others” (Oratio 14, 8 De Pauperum Amore: PG 35, 868ab).
Gregory emphasizes that man must imitate the goodness and love of God, and, therefore, makes the following recommendation: “If you are healthy and rich, alleviate the need of those who are sick and poor; if you have not fallen, help those who have fallen and who live in suffering; if you are happy, console those who are sad; if you are among the fortunate, help those who has been smitten by misfortune. Show God a sign of your gratitude that you are one of those who can do good and not one of those in need of being helped. ... Be rich not only in wealth, but also in compassion; not only in gold, but also in virtue, or better yet, only in this. Surpass the fame of your neighbor by being better than everybody; be God for the unfortunate, imitating the mercy of God” (Oratio 14, 26 De Pauperum Amore: PG 35, 892bc).
Gregory teaches us, above all, the importance and the need for prayer.
He tells us that “we ought to think of God more often than we draw our breath” (Oratio 27, 4: PG 250, 78) since prayer is the encounter of the thirst of God with our thirst. God thirsts that we thirst for him (see Oratio 40, 27: SC 358, 260).
In prayer, we have to turn our hearts to God in order to surrender ourselves to him as an offering to be purified and transformed. In prayer, we see everything in the light of Christ, let down our guard and immerse ourselves in the truth and in listening to God, nurturing the fire of our love.
In a poem that is at the same time a meditation on the meaning of life and an implicit appeal to God, Gregory writes: “You have a task, my soul, a great task, as it were. Thoughtfully scrutinize yourself, your innermost being, your destiny; from where do you come and where are you headed. Try to know if it is life that you are living, or if there is something more. You have a task, my soul; purify your life, therefore. Reflect, I beg you, on God and his mysteries; investigate what existed before this universe, and what this is for you, where he came from and what will be his destiny. This is your task then, my soul; purify, then, your life” (Carmina [historica] 2, 1, 78: PG 37, 1425-1426).
The holy bishop repeatedly asks Christ for help in raising himself up and setting out once again on the path: “I have been disappointed, my dear Christ, by my considerable presumption: From the heights I have fallen to the depths. But, I raise myself up again now, because I see that I have deceived myself; if I rely on myself too much once more, I will immediately fall again, and the fall will be fatal” (Carmina [historica] 2, 1, 67: PG 37, 1408).
Thus, Gregory experienced the need to draw close to God in order to overcome the weariness of his own “I.” He experienced the yearning of his soul, the liveliness of his sensitive spirit and the instability of fleeting happiness.
Amid the drama of a life in which the awareness of his weakness and frailty weighed heavily upon him, the experience of the love of God always had the upper hand.
You, too, have a task — St. Gregory tells us — the task of finding the true light, of finding the true loftiness of your life. Your life consists in encountering God, who thirsts for our thirst.