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Why Gregory Nazianzen Ran Away from the Priesthood: A Reflection on His Second Oration
by Addison H. Hart
On Easter Day in A.D. 362, in the Cappadocian town of Nazianzus, a young priest stood nervously before a sparse congregation to deliver what would in time be known as his First Oration. The number of those in attendance was low—hardly to be expected on the Church’s Day of Days—for the simple reason that this particular congregation was angry with this particular priest. They were angry with the young Gregory Nazianzen, the son of their own Bishop Gregory the elder, because he had run away months before, abandoning his flock, abandoning his father and bishop, as a reaction to his sudden ordination to the priesthood, something that he had not at all expected or desired. Indeed St. Gregory Nazianzen, still in his early thirties, regarded his ordination at the hands of his father as an act of “noble tyranny,”1 and his response was to pack his bags and skip town. He wanted to live the contemplative life, and so he went to Pontus to join his monastic friend, Basil of Caesarea. But now, after time in Pontus for reflection upon his actions, he had returned to his father’s side in Nazianzus to exercise his priestly ministry.
His people, however, took the opportunity afforded on that Easter Day in 362 to demonstrate their wounded feelings at his behavior in no uncertain terms. Gregory, in turn, was to protest his own hurt at their uncharitable behavior in what would become his Third Oration, remonstrating with his flock even while declaring his love for them. In time, the mutual wounds healed, and Gregory was restored in his people’s affections.
Between his First and Third Orations, though, Gregory composed his lengthy Second Oration, one that in all likelihood he never delivered orally. In this work, he gave an eloquent defense of his actions, explaining the inner turmoil he had undergone in regard to his call to the priesthood, and in so doing provided an enduring and seminal exposition of the character of the pastoral ministry. This oration was destined to be a source of influence for such magisterial works as St. John Chrysostom’s treatise On the Priesthood and St. Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule. At its inception, though, it was merely intended to be a heartfelt, personal, and engaging apologia for why he had run away. “I had much toilsome consideration to discover my duty,” he wrote therein, “being set in the midst between two fears.”2 Those two fears, in short, were disobedience to God’s call on the one hand, and rashness or presumption about the holy nature of the priesthood itself on the other. Let me say here that I tend to think, though I’m doubtful of convincing everyone who reads this, that in running away from the priesthood as he did, Gregory Nazianzen showed considerable good sense.
The History of Flight
Gregory was not the only saint destined for greatness and honor in the Church who fled the pastoral office. One might even be tempted to think it something of a conventional response to the call in earlier centuries of Christian history, given the number of cases of such flight. However, in every case where the details are related, we discover that the longing to flee the priesthood, or the actual flight itself, was rooted in each individual’s own, unique conscience before God.
St. Ambrose of Milan, for example, seems to have had well-founded reservations about the desire of the crowds who demanded him for their bishop in 373. Not only was he not a cleric at the time of their importunity, he was not even yet baptized, and he was all too aware that their demand went against both precedent and the canons of the Council of Nicea. He was, to be sure, a strong advocate of the latter. Ambrose also wished for a more ascetical life and knew that he was lacking in sufficient theological preparation. He fled, therefore, to a friend’s house to hide out, but eventually was turned over to the unrelenting crowds, baptized, hurried through the minor orders, diaconate, and priesthood, and made bishop on December 7th that same year. His scruples were utterly ignored.
The most common theme underlying resistance to the pastoral office is that of the felt tension between the contemplative life (retirement and solitude in relationship with God) and the active life of service “in the world.” We see this tension, obviously without any resistance to his active vocation, in the life of Jesus Christ. In Mark 1:35–39, for example, Jesus rises “in the morning, a great while before day,” after a long night of healing the sick and casting out evil spirits, and goes to “a lonely place” to pray. We are told that his disciples “hunted him down” (katedioxen), a word used elsewhere to indicate persecution. Implicit is the tension between the need of the Lord to commune with his Father in solitude and his mission to preach—“for that is why I came out.” We can only guess at the discomfort that existed in the heart of Jesus between his inner life with the Father and the ongoing disturbance resulting from the continual encounter with the outer turmoil, chaos, clamor, and persecution of his earthly ministry. In the case of Christ, of course, we are touching upon the Trinitarian intimacy, which is precisely what Peter and the others intrude upon in this passage. Very rarely are we allowed to glimpse this internal strain in Christ, but occasionally we see it: “O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you?” (Mark 9:19)
The tension between the contemplative life and the call to ordained ministry was to produce resistance to the latter, coinciding with the Church’s new status in the fourth century. Clerical life became increasingly prestigious, and it potentially presented the soul yearning for sanctification with dangerous temptations to pride, luxury, and wealth. Many of the monks of the desert went to extremes to avoid ordination and thus preserve their asceticism intact. Evagrius of Pontus is said to have fled Egypt for Palestine to avoid Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria’s intention to make him a bishop. Patriarch Timotheus of Alexandria had made an earlier attempt to consecrate Abba Ammonius, but the latter had cut off his own left ear with a pair of shears, saying that a mutilated man could not be made a priest.3 When Pachomius, the father of cenobitic monasticism, fled from St. Athanasius the Great, one account records that the latter praised Pachomius for his action, telling the monks (and echoing Christ’s words to Martha in Luke 10:42):
Greet your father and say to him, “So, you hid from us, fleeing from that which leads to jealousy, discord, and envy [i.e., ecclesiastical rank], and you chose for yourself that which is better and which will always abide in Christ! Our Lord, therefore, will accede to your wish. So now, since you have fled before vain and temporary grandeur, not only do I wish for you that that may not happen to you, but I will always stretch out my hands toward the Most High that such a thing may never happen to you, and that never, never may you have rank. . . .”4
Such sentiments echo and reecho down the centuries, heard now and again in the lives and writings of numerous saints. St. John Mary Vianney, for instance, as late as the mid-nineteenth century, ran away three times from his pastoral cure to find solitude and peace. He had always desired the life of an obscure Carthusian or Cistercian monk, not the hectic pastoral ministry that often overwhelmed and weighed him down.
The Bible presents us with prophets and apostles who, for other and perhaps less noble reasons, resisted calls to ministry from God himself. “I’m a poor speaker—no skills for speechifying,” protests Moses before the burning bush. “I’m just a kid—and I . . . ah, ah, ah . . . stutter,” says Jeremiah. “I have a foul mouth,” laments Isaiah. And in Luke’s Gospel, Peter backs away from Jesus with what is at once both the most precise and least effective excuse of all: “I’m a sinful man!”5 Then there is Jonah (with whom Gregory Nazianzen identifies himself), who simply jumps ship and tries to sail away from God in direct contradiction to his call. In all these biblical instances there is a sense of unpreparedness and inadequacy, leading usually to hesitation and making excuses, and even to an attempt to escape.
The Loss of the Contemplative
In his Second Oration, Gregory ruminates on all the motivations we have thus far mentioned: desire for contemplative solitude, fear of the temptations attached to ecclesiastical rank, and the sense of unpreparedness. He shows how these aspects presented him with internal wrestlings and led to his actions, both of flight and return. His two fears are therefore an adequate summary of his situation: he stood between presumption and disobedience.
When we consider Gregory’s fear of presumption, we must recall that what he most deeply longed for in life were “the blessings of calm and retirement,” that is, the life of holy contemplation.6 He confesses that he was “astounded at the unexpectedness” of his ordination, and that it had violently intruded on the monastic vocation with which he had “from the first been enamored to a higher degree . . . than any other student of letters,” to which he had promised himself to God, and of which he had already “had so much experience.”7 “I could not submit to be thrust into the midst of a life of turmoil by an arbitrary act of oppression,” he states in somewhat less than conciliatory terms, “and to be torn away by force from the holy sanctuary of such a life as this.”8
For nothing seemed to me so desirable as to close the doors of my senses, and, escaping from the flesh and the world, collected within myself, having no further connection than was absolutely necessary with human affairs, and speaking to myself and to God, to live superior to visible things, ever preserving in myself the divine impressions pure and unmixed with the erring tokens of this lower world, and both being, and constantly growing more and more to be, a real unspotted mirror of God and divine things, as light is added to light, and what was still dark grew clearer, enjoying already by hope the blessings of the world to come, roaming about with the angels, even now being above the earth by having forsaken it, and stationed on high by the Spirit. If any of you has been possessed by this longing, he knows what I mean and will sympathize with my feelings at that time.9
He tempers this exalted language by acknowledging that some hearing it will be “unhappily disposed to laugh at such things,” those who “have bestowed upon that which is good an evil name, calling philosophy [the life of contemplation, as the Fathers understood it] nonsense, aided by envy and the evil tendencies of the mob, who are ever inclined to grow worse: so that they are constantly occupied with one of two sins, either the commission of evil, or the discrediting of good.”10
A Very High Calling to Holiness
In light of all this, we might understandably infer that Gregory held the monastic life to be a higher and holier calling than that to the priesthood. Indeed, he goes on to castigate those priests who
without being better than ordinary people (nay, it is a great thing if they be not worse), with unwashed hands, as the saying goes, and uninitiated souls, intrude into the most sacred offices; and, before becoming worthy to approach the temples, they lay claim to the sanctuary, and they push and thrust around the holy table, as if they thought this order [i.e., the pastoral office] to be a means to livelihood, instead of a pattern of virtue, or an absolute authority, instead of a ministry of which we must give account.11
Gregory here attacks the very presumption he so fears. In desiring the monastic life and the highest reaches of prayer he apparently ascertains no presumption in himself; but with the prospect of ordained ministry in the world, so fraught with temptations to pride, power, and worldliness, he dreads being presumptuous: “I did not, nor do I now, think myself qualified to rule a flock or herd, or to have authority over the souls of men.”12 The monastic life is not a higher calling than the priesthood; rather, the latter demands such holiness from a man as to be virtually impossible to attain:
For he who has received this charge, not only needs to be free from evil, for evil is in the eyes of most of those under his care, most disgraceful, but also to be eminent in good, according to the command, “Depart from evil and do good.” And he must not only wipe out the traces of vice from his soul, but also inscribe better ones, so as to outstrip men further in virtue than he is superior to them in dignity. He should know no limits in goodness or spiritual progress, and should dwell upon the loss of what is still beyond him, rather than the gain of what he has attained, and consider that which is beneath his feet a step to that which comes next: and not think it a great gain to excel ordinary people, but a loss to fall short of what we ought to be: and to measure his success by the commandment and not by his neighbors, whether they be evil, or to some extent proficient in virtue: and to weigh virtue in no small scales, inasmuch as it is due to the Most High, “from Whom are all things, and to Whom are all things.”13
But granted that a man is free from vice, and has reached the greatest heights of virtue: I do not see what knowledge or power would justify him in venturing upon this office. For the guiding of man, the most variable and manifold of creatures, seems to me in very deed to be the art of arts and science of sciences.14
But we, upon whose efforts is staked the salvation of a soul, a being blessed and immortal, and destined for undying chastisement or praise, for its vice or virtue—what a struggle ought ours to be, and how great skill do we require to treat, or get men treated properly, and to change their life, and give up the clay to the spirit.15
Skill & Vulnerability
The priesthood thus requires both aspiration for ever-increasing holiness of life and a skill comparable to, but of infinitely greater value than, the physician’s skill, because it demands the careful and painstaking ability to minister to the many varieties of the immortal human soul. The priesthood exists to guide and “doctor” souls, created in God’s image but damaged by sin, with the ultimate aim of their salvation and deification. Gregory is abundantly clear: such qualities as this ministry demands are so sublime as to be rare indeed, and any man called to this office is presumptuous if he thinks himself competent for the task.
Thus, the disgust he feels for those who consider ecclesiastical rank to be a mere means to livelihood, a worldly “job,” something one can just “do” if he “knows the ropes,” requiring only sufficient training to “get by.” Gregory perceives that the inclination to sin within a man, coupled with temptations without, make such an office extremely risky and dangerous for the one holding it:
For it is in this that wickedness especially has the advantage over goodness, and most distressing it is to me to perceive it, that vice is something attractive and ready at hand, and that nothing is so easy as to become evil, even without any one to lead us on to it; while the attainment of virtue is rare and difficult, even when there is much to attract and encourage us . . . [G]oodness can with difficulty gain a hold upon human nature, like fire upon green wood; while most men are ready and disposed to join in evil, like stubble, I mean, ready for a spark and a wind, which is easily kindled and consumed from its dryness.16
This reveals Gregory’s own internal fear, knowing himself to be vulnerable to falling, and such frail nature is presumptuous in seeking the pastoral office.
Ridicule & Internal Decay
At the time the Second Oration was written, the Emperor Julian (“the Apostate”) was on the throne, seeking to dislodge Christianity from its newly privileged place and to revive Roman paganism. His reign was short (360–363), but even Gregory admitted in his Fourth Oration that many of the common people happily supported Julian’s agenda.17 In the Second Oration, he remarks on the public ridicule of Christians that the “reform” was engendering even in the popular forms of entertainment:
Nay, we have already—I can scarcely speak of it without tears—been represented on the stage, amid the laughter of the most licentious, and the most popular of all dialogues and scenes is the caricature of a Christian.18
But Gregory is quick to point out that the blame for such ridicule lies with the public behavior of Christians themselves. The condition of the Church that Gregory describes might give any idealistic modern reader something of a jolt for two reasons: first, because we recognize that the Church’s internal problems then were not unlike those of today; and secondly (and as a consequence of the first reason), because his remarks, far from conjuring up for us any illusions of a fourth-century ecclesiastical “golden age,” reveal seemingly overwhelming difficulties for the prospective orthodox post-Constantinian priest, especially for one who took as seriously as Gregory did the pastoral requirement to teach, sanctify, and guide souls to salvation.
Such popular heresies as Arianism, Sabellianism, and a widespread corruption of Trinitarianism into “the Gentile plurality of principles from which we have escaped” (tri-theism) threatened to pull apart the unity of the Church.19 This situation, of course, was exacerbated by the short-lived imperial hostility to Christianity. We might gain a sympathetic appreciation for Gregory’s view of the forces of heresy eating at the innards of the Church of his time if we compare them to similar cancerous forces of “dissent” at work in some sectors of the Roman Catholic Church today:
But what is to be said of those who, from vain glory or arrogance, speak unrighteousness against the Most High, arming themselves with the insolence of Jannes and Jambres, not against Moses, but against the truth, and rising in opposition to sound doctrine? Or of . . . [those] who, through ignorance and, its consequence, temerity, rush headlong against every form of doctrine in swinish fashion, and trample under foot the fair pearls of the truth.20
The tensions created by these forces were aided by what Gregory ironically refers to as “the piety (eulabeia) of the audience”; who resist sound teaching if it does not accord with “their private convictions, and the accustomed doctrines in which they have been educated.”21 As is the case within certain “conservative” circles of the Episcopal Church today, false or confused notions and practices, becoming accepted and ingrained through habit over time, were apparently reinforced by the tendency towards “conservatism” itself:
I am now referring to those who are moderate and not utterly depraved in disposition, who, if they have erred in regard to truth, have erred from piety, who have zeal, though not according to knowledge, who will possibly be of the number of those not excessively condemned, and not beaten with many stripes, because it is not through vice or depravity that they have failed to do the will of their Lord. . . .22
Another popular bent of mind that Gregory recognizes as plaguing the Church of his day, and reminiscent of trends in American Christianity today, is what might be referred to as religious “consumerism.”
What again of those who come with no private idea, or form of words, better or worse, in regard to God, but listen to all kinds of doctrines and teachers, with the intention of selecting from all what is best and safest, in reliance upon no better judges of the truth than themselves? They are, in consequence, borne and turned about hither and thither by one plausible idea after another. . . .23
Obedience to Christ in Evil Times
In short, Gregory presents the would-be priest, struggling as he is with his own internal enemies, with a larger, intimidating social and ecclesiastical climate that anyone seriously desirous of loving and obeying Christ might very understandably wish to avoid. How does anyone have the audacity to attempt to teach, sanctify, and govern such a chaotic Church in such a threatening world? And, further, how can one have the sheer presumptuousness to attempt this, when one cannot claim yet to love God perfectly oneself, when one is still assaulted by concupiscence and the lure of evil, when one has matured only sufficiently enough to recognize his own lack of training and competence for this “extremest of dangers”?24
For I own that I am too weak for this warfare, and therefore turned my back, hiding my face in the rout, and sat solitary, because I was filled with bitterness and sought to be silent, understanding that it is an evil time. . . .25
And this is the point where Gregory must face his other fear, that of disobedience to God’s call. Paradoxically, it is in admitting his complete incapacity to serve as a priest, going so far as to leave us with the unavoidable and uncomfortable conclusion that to seek ordination at all is the riskiest and most presumptuous of ventures, and that no one should exhibit such errant audacity,26 that Gregory reveals himself to be anything but a neophyte.
A neophyte is not one because of age, but to the extent that one fails to identify and fear precisely those things that Gregory feared, and also to the extent that one does not know himself. The call to ordination is a call to greater holiness, to face grave threats and frustrations, and to learn—often by trial and error—a “warfare,” the “art of arts and science of sciences.” A neophyte thinks himself capable of this. A wiser man knows himself incapable of it, or learns through failure the same lesson; and thus, reduced to the nothingness he is, has the mere hope, born of humility and absolute dependence on Christ himself, to begin to practice the ministry of a priest.
This wisdom is resignation and obedience. Gregory knew he was incapable of living up to the full demands of the pastoral office, and so fled presumption; but he also learned in so doing that he was capable of obeying God’s call, and so returned to Nazianzus. Like Jonah, he tells us, he could not evade God.27 So it is he can write:
Pray, mark how accurately and justly I hold the balance between the fears, neither desiring an office not given to me, nor rejecting it when given. The one course marks the rash, the other the disobedient, both the undisciplined. My position lies between those who are too bold, or too timid; more timid than those who rush at every position, more bold than those who avoid them all. This is my judgment on the matter.28
The Recovery of the Pastoral Vocation
Many lessons might be drawn from this oration for us in our day, but I will limit myself to one concluding observation. We live in an age when too many are ordained who apparently fear neither presumption before God nor disobedience to God. This is an indictment. The historical, cultural, social, and religious causes of this fact I leave to others to analyze, but I note the fact itself. We find many who have confused their pastoral office with vocations to be therapists, social activists, entertainers, CEOs, masters-of-ceremony, dispensers of warm fuzzies, “professional clergymen,” etc. Rarely do we find the priest or pastor who has had what should be the basic, formative, existential experience of finding himself apprehensively before the living God and questioning his will, standing between the two terrible abysses of presumption and disobedience. Indeed, some have fallen headlong into one or the other abyss, and seem not to realize it. The conclusion that must be drawn is that something vital to understanding the character of the pastoral office—not to say the character of God—has largely been lost.
I am not, of course, suggesting that all those who are called to serve the Lord in the ordained priesthood would be better off for the experience of first running away as Gregory did, nor does Gregory suggest such a thing. I am saying that only those who know the nature and dangers of it— really know these things, deeply and with self-awareness of a humbling and disturbing sort, eschewing all the nonsense about “self-esteem” or “talent” or “ability to help others”—should have hands laid on them. The ordinand should not be a neophyte, but a man who, knowing God as he truly is and not as he wishes him to be, is fully intent on doing all that he must to become holy and skillful in guiding and “doctoring” immortal souls, continuously doing whatever it takes to improve his knowledge of that “art of arts and science of sciences.” In doing this, he must never let down his guard, recognizing both the enemies within himself and the many and great pressures without, never becoming confused about who he is as a priest in his Lord’s Church. Without that firm commitment, it really is much better to run away and stay away.
The lesson here, though, is not about running away, but learning once again what Gregory Nazianzen knew: the authentic nature of the pastoral vocation. Leading faithful men to see it with clarity and to embrace it with heartfelt and intelligent comprehension, as well as to cultivate in them appropriate fear for both presumption and disobedience, constitutes a responsibility on the part of the Church, one that would unquestionably benefit future generations of Christian believers.
1. Oration I, 1. The translation of Gregory’s writings I will be using throughout, with some modifications, is that of Charles Gordon Browne, M.A., in A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, Second Series, vol. VII (Eerdmans, reprinted 1983).
2. Oration II, 112.
3. Palladius, The Lausiac History, XI, 1–2.
4. The Bohairic Life of Pachomius, 28; in Pachomian Koinonia, vol. I (The Life of St. Pachomius and His Disciples), (Cistercian Publications, Inc., Kalamazoo, Michigan, 1980).
5. Cf. Ex. 4:10; Jer. 1:6; Is. 6:5; Luke 5:8.
6. Oration II, 6.
9. Ibid., 7.
11. Ibid., 8.
12. Ibid., 9.
13. Ibid., 14.
14. Ibid., 16.
15. Ibid., 28.
16. Ibid., 11, 12.
17. Oration IV, 75.
18. Oration II, 84.
19. Ibid., 37.
20. Ibid., 41.
21. Ibid., 40.
23. Ibid., 42.
24. Ibid., 99.
25. Ibid., 90.
26. Ibid., 99.
27. Ibid., 104–109.
28. Ibid., 112.
Addison H. Hart is retired from active ministry as parish priest and university chaplain. He is the author of Knowing Darkness: On Skepticism, Melancholy, Friendship, and God and The Yoke of Jesus: A School for the Soul in Solitude (both from Eerdmans). His forthcoming book is a study of the Sermon on the Mount. He lives and writes in Norheimsund, Norway.