romanian literary monthly

~ Theodor Damian: „Gregory of Nazianzus’ Poetry and his Human Face in it“


In the present paper I do not intend to give an exhaustive analysis of St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ poetry from a certain point of view, such as theological, moral, philosophical or literary. I simply want to present Gregory as a common man, in his very human hypostasis. St. Gregory the Theologian is the one whom we know very well especially from his theological writings. The man Gregory, who reveals himself in poetry in a different way than we are accustomed to think of him, is not known at all or just a little.

I think that in order for us to adequately understand holiness – in the human case – it is useful to emphasize the struggle, the temptations, the doubts, the suffering, the way towards it, not just the state of holiness, like an achieved ideal without a strong link to a lower background.

For instance, I was always more impressed by the story of Mary the Egyptian knowing where she came from and what she achieved than if I had only heard the ideal portrait of her.

St. Gregory’s poetry is the place where one needs to go in order to discover the struggling man, not just the saint.



Gregory’s Vita

St. Gregory of Nazianzus was the greatest rhetorician of his age[1], one of the Church’s literary giants[2], a powerful theologian; with a sensitive and poetical nature,[3] he liked philosophy and was a master in this field; he was a “philosopher of Beauty”.

When Basil, his great and good friend, left Greece after his studies there, Gregory wanted to leave, too, but his friends insisted so much that he decided to stay – even though not for too long. However, thinking of his home country, he declared that over there he would be able to live as a “philosopher of Beauty”, meaning as a Christian who tends towards perfection.[4]

This testimony indicates that he had a predilection towards meditation and contemplation, towards isolation where he cold speak less and pray more, where – as it was perceived – it is easier, and the right place to achieve perfection. He withdrew into hesichia several times in his life, even when he was in his highest administrative position in the Church: in 381, as archbishop of Constantinople, after troubles during the Second Ecumenical Council, he did not hesitate to resign and go to his favorite place, home, where he had the opportunity to withdraw into isolation in order to pray, practice silence and write poetry.[5]

That was also the reason for which he renounced the yoke of marriage.[6]


* * *


Gregory was born in 329 in Cappadocia, in a town called Naziansus or Arianzus, to Gregory the Elder (converted to Christianity in 325) and to Nonna.

In 345 he met Basil while in school in Caesarea of Cappadocia. He studied also in Caesarea of Palestine, Alexandria and Athens. His friendship with Basil the Great, especially in Athens, remained exemplary in history.

When he came back to Nazianzus he was baptized by his father, then ordained, although against his will. Gregory ran away to Pontus to stay with Basil. In 372 he became a bishop, again against his will (ordained by Basil and his father ) for a small place called Sasima. Gregory would not live there. In 380 he was archbishop of Constantinople for about a year. He died in 389-390.[7]

While in Constantinople he was a resolute defender of the Nicene doctrines against the Arians that had taken the city. This is where he delivered his famous five theological orations that brought him the name “the Theologian”.

As John McGuckin notices, Gregory’s life was marked by five determining facts: the loyalty to his father, the recurring ill health, the friendship with Basil the Great, his involvement in the Church administration and theology (the Constantinople phase), and his awareness of the brilliant gifts he had.[8]


Gregory as a poet

According to Paul Gallay, Gregory of Nazianzus was the first one who conferred value to Christian poetry. There is no Christian poet of value who wrote in Greek before Gregory.[9]

In the same way, A.A. Vasiliev believes that Gregory’s poem De vita sua (On his own life) for instance, is worthy to be placed among the most beautiful literary works in general.[10] Gregory was aware of his gifts and used them extensively. He wrote over 400 poems.[11] As Paul Gallay notices, his poetic style transpires even in his theological works.[12]

The main message of Gregory’s poetry is the trust in God.[13] It is in his poems and in his letters that we discover the human face of Gregory. Besides the saintly side of him: contemplation, ascetic endeavor, prayer, fasting, deprivations, here we see the common person that he was, very similar to us, with all his pains, doubts, problems, depressions, suffering, struggle.[14]

Gregory’s ability to make connections, to carefully observe the reality around him, strengthened significantly his descriptive skills. One can see that in the following example where he describes Sasima, his bishopric, for which he was consecrated in 372 against his will by Basil and his father Gregory the Elder:

“There is a place on a highway in Cappadocia, at the junction of three roads; there is no water, no greenery, nothing of what can please a free man; this is a narrow, little village terribly hateful; there is nothing but dust, noise, carts, lamentations, moans, tax collectors, instruments of torture, chains; in fact, the inhabitants are nothing but foreigners who pass by, vagabonds; this is my Church of Sasima!”[15] (De via sua)

In the long poem on his own life his reflective observations are formulated quasi aphoristically. When he speaks with indignation of how his father forced him into ordination Gregory writes: “It is terrible when love is combined with power”[16] Here is another sapiential thought: “If the one who is obliged must remember the services he received, the benefactor must forget the services he offered.”[17]

This is just a small illustration of the reasons for which Gregory’s poems deserve to be brought back to our attention. “They deserve a small renaissance”, as Raymond Van Dam put it.[18]



The Purpose of his poetry

Gregory wrote his poetry for four basic reasons: to address those who had similar experiences, as the poet himself says, to give guidance to the young people in a form agreeable to them, to show that Christians are good at arts, too, or even better than non-Christians, and as a way of talking to himself, especially when he considered himself to be an “aged swan”[19] according to his own metaphor.

In writing poetry Gregory did have in view the practice of Appolinarians who used to put their teachings in poetical form in order to have more adherence to the public. So Gregory did the same to counteract. He also believed that writing poetry he would write less than otherwise and that would fit his ascetical purposes.[20]

It was also affirmed that he wrote poetry in order to obey a transcendent poetical genius.[21]



Types of poetry

Different people classify differently St. Gregory’s poetry. The poems are historical and dogmatic or moral, according to some scholars,[22] or literary, historical, doctrinal and devotional[23] according to others.

Peter Gilbert speaks of poems related to what is to be believed, the theological ones (on the Holy Trinity, creation, providence, angels, soul, salvation in Jesus Christ), poems related to what is to be done (moral poems) like the one on virginity, for instance, poems related to who am I, autobiographical and also elegies and lamentations, and of those that form an Ars poetica, poems about writing, that can be considered literary theory or criticism, like the one on his own verses.[24]

As John McGuckin writes, Gregory’s poetry, and especially the dogmatic poems indicate the essence of the patristic legacy: prayer and theology are one.[25] As the old adage says: theologian is the one who prays.



Other characteristics

St. Gregory of Nazianzus’ poetry is often in Homeric style, often difficult and deliberately obscure; it is suggestive or can be ironic as well.[26] He wrote in several verse forms: dactylic hexameter, iambic trimeter, mixed meters, elegiac couplets.[27] He is diverse in tone and expression, natural in his emotions, sincere in sharing his deepest convictions and beliefs.[28] He cultivates the paradox, the apparent contradiction as when he speaks about the Son of God: “He was mortal yet God/ of the race of David, yet maker of Adam, He wore flesh, yet was beyond bodily form/ He was sacrifice and celebrant/ sacrificial priest and God Himself” (On the Son)[29] Gregory writes, echoing the liturgical cheruvimic prayer where Jesus is the offer and the offered, the one who receives and the one who gives Himself to many.

As a theologian, particularly in the dogmatic poems, Gregory uses the apophatic style: “How can words sing Your praise when no word can speak of You?” Since God is unutterable, unknowable, the best way to speak of Him is to offer Him a silent hymn (Hymn to God).[30]

“You are not one thing, not all things” the poet continues reminding one of Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite’s cataphatic and apophatic theology, “You bear all names, how shall I name You who cannot be named?” (Hymn to God).[31]

Confident in what he says when speaking about God, and believing in the divine existence in the process, while being in the middle of his engagement and details, he suddenly warns the reader: “But here God Himself is going to inspire me” (Meditation on the Christian Dogma).[32] In the same poem he addresses the readers – who can be imagined to be the heretics themselves or people who read their teachings, with self credit and pride: “Listen now to our excellent doctrine on the soul!”[33]

Another theological poem (On the Incarnation of Christ) ends in this challenging and unusual way, very triumphalistically: “Then come here to me that I may cut these verses on the tablet of your heart with a pen that needs no ink”.[34]

In Epitaph for himself, where Gregory talks about himself and where he nicely acknowledges that he was born and saw the light due to prayer (his mother’s prayer), the reader is talked to imperatively: “Inscribe that in stone.”[35]

Part of his style is to use repetition in order to create effect, to talk to himself in the third person (like in the epitaph on his death and that of his parents, where he laments: “How sad Gregory’s hand is, how bitter the letters that he writes”)[36], or to personify things, as when he is talking to his flesh, that “sweet enemy”: “flesh, respect me, contain your desires and stop your rage against my soul…” “I will reduce you to slavery” (Against the flesh).[37]



Gregory as a common man

More than any other writings Gregory’s poetry shows “a man conscious of his failures and flaws”,[38] hence the emphasis that is placed on humility in many ways. Gregory appears to be a man like all others, one who experiences depression, pain, doubt, who laments and complains, who shows indignation, who is afraid to die or indulges in little vanities.

For instance, when he describes his friendship with Basil in Greece, he confesses: “If I can praise myself a little I would say that both of us, we did not remain unremarked in Greece” (De vita sua).[39]

He was afraid to die and prayed ardently, when, on his way to Greece, the boat he was on was about to disappear in a great storm in the sea. He was all the more afraid as he thought of a double death: one physical, in the sea, and the other, spiritual, because he was not yet baptized in the water of salvation (De vita sua).[40]

In De vita sua, again, Gregory speaks with great pain and indignation against his best friend Basil for having forced him into episcopacy, especially in that desolate place, Sasima, while Basil was a great bishop surrounded by 50 auxiliaries; he felt that he was treated with unexpected arrogance, and reminds Basil of the good times when “you were not elevated above the clouds”.[41]

Gregory is appalled at Basil’s behavior and blames him for having lied: “ Basil, who, for all the rest was the man the most distant from lie, had lied to me”, the poet complains in the same poem.[42]

He complains again when with resignation and “blessed wounds”, frustratingly accepted the assignment to Sasima (De vita sua): “Not to have even some bread to share with a visitor!” “Ask me to show a different type of courge and propose this destination to other people wiser than me”, the bitter reply sounds. “Oh, wild beasts. Will you not receive me? With you, I think, I could find more faithfulness!”[43]

When his father called him to Nazianzus to help him after Gregory, running from Sasima, took refuge in the mountains, the new bishop finally accepted for fear of punishment. In fact the father was blackmailing Gregory when he wrote to him: “Give me this favor, please; if not, let someone else put me in the tomb!” (De vita sua).[44]

Gregory’s struggles with the flesh are also remarkably described in another poem (On the human nature), where he seems to anticipate the tone of Charles Baudelaire in his poem The Flowers of Evil: “Flesh, this is what I have to tell you, to you, so difficult to heal, sweet enemy, […] ferocious amazing thing! But it will be even more amazing if you finished by being my friend!”[45]

The very human side of Gregory is shown in a poem (On a calumniator) where he blames another man and calls him evil, instead of praying for him as one would expect: “My friend”, Gregory starts, “You say many evil things about me/ If you were a really virtuous man/ I might believe you right in some of them; but if you are an evil man/ then I pray you will always speak evil of me/ indeed all the more./ And so I would win both ways/ for I would hate to be held in good esteem by wicked men.”[46]

The last verses here might remind those who know Romanian poet Mihai Eminescu of his diatribe against those that he despised, at the end of one of his letters: “If I bear easily and with a smile their hatred/ Their praises for me, certainly, would sadden me beyond measure.” In De vita sua, Gregory expresses the same kind of feeling: he is indifferent to applause and noisy acceptance by vanitous men.[47]

In some cases, Gregory of Nazianzus has a very unusual way to address God in his prayers, a way that resembles a little the Old Testament prophets’ negotiation or protest in their dialogue with God. In De vita sua, describing the storm where he was about to die, he tells us that he almost warned God that if God would take his life now, he would lose a worshiper![48] This can be taken as an irony and also as a very bold attitude.

In another instance (Prayer to Christ), talking about a life of suffering, as if he knows the mystery of being, or when one is considered pure by God, as if protesting and judging, Gregory addresses Christ: “Lord, what need is there now of any further pains to purify my soul?” [!][49] This seems also to be intended to teach God a lesson of logic!

The attitude here is in line with a very interesting sense of self-justification that transpires in a poem where he tells Christ what to do and argues with Him: “Christ, do not press heavily upon  me/ or crush me in the weight of sorrows/ for there are many more evil then I/ on whom you show your mercy.”[50]

Not only that he implies that “I am not the worst of them, after all,” but he is reproaching Christ for the way He chose to deal with His servants!

In the poem The Serpent Gregory seems to imply that Christ has an obligation to serve him, because “I am Yours, o, Christ/ then, save me as it is Your heart’s desire to do.”[51]

Or put it in another way: “In the morning I greet my God/ and resolve to give no room  to sin/ … / Do you,/ my Christ/ bring this beginning/ to a happy end” (Morning Prayer).[52]

This can sound like nice prayer, but also as if he expressed an intention not to sin, then left it to God to make sure he didn’t sin. He did his job, now it is up to God to do His job!




St. Gregory of Nazianzus was a very interesting personality. In a sense, like walking in the footsteps of his Master, Jesus Christ, he was weak and strong, sarcastic and uncompromising with his enemies, but a good person with a loving nature; he experienced contrasts and extremes with stoic resolve while being affected in other cases beyond possibility of expression.

Indeed, his poetry reveals the real man and the real saint thus being a significant instrument for the necessary knowledge we want to have of the one who was a brilliant theologian, a powerful philosopher and the greatest rhetorician of his age.[53]


[1]  Saint Gregory Nazianzen: Selected Poems, Translated with an Introduction by John McGuckin, SLG Press, Convent of the Incarnation, Fairacres Oxford, 1995,  p. VIII. (Future references to this book will be made through the translator’s name, John McGuckin).

[2]  Ibidem, p. V.

[3]  Saint Grégoire de Nazianze, textes choisies et présentés par Edmond Devoldes, dans la traduction de Paul Gallay, Les Editions du Soleil, Levant, Namur, Belgique, 1960, p. 45. (Future references to this book will be made through the translator’s name, Paul Gallay).

[4]  Ibidem, p. 39.

[5]  On God and Man: The Theological Poetry of St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Translated and Introduced by Peter Gilbert, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, Crestwood, New York, 2001, p. 1. (Future references to this book will be made through the translator’s name, Peter Gilbert).

[6]  Paul Gallay, p. 63.

[7]  P. Gilbert, pp. 23-26.

[8]  McGuckin, p. VIII.

[9]  Paul Gallay, p. 27.

[10]  Ibidem, p. 27

[11]  John McGuckin, p. 5

[12]  P.Gallay, p. 21.

[13]  Ibidem, p.21.

[14]  Ibidem, p.21.

[15]  Paul Gallay, p. 45.

[16]  Ibidem, p. 48.

[17]  Ibidem, p. 44.

[18]  Raymond Van Dam, (see book review for Carolinne White, Ed., Gregory of Nazianzus, Autobiographical Poems, “Cambridge Medieval Classics”, Vol. 6, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1996, at http://www.hti.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=tmr;idno=baj9928.9805.009).

[19]  P. Gilbert, pp. 12-17.

[20]  P. Gallay, pp. 26-27.

[21]  Ibidem.

[22]  Ibidem, p. 29.

[23]  P.Gilbert, p. 1.

[24]  P. Gilbert, pp. 6-13.

[25]  McGuckin, p. V.

[26]  Ibidem.

[27]  P.Gilbert, p. 6.

[28]  P. Gilbert, p. 6.

[29]  McGuckin, p. V.

[30]  McGuckin, p. 7.

[31]  Ibidem.

[32]  Gallay, p. 68.

[33]  Ibidem, p. 72,

[34]  McGuckin, p. 6.

[35]  Gallay, p. 60.

[36]  Gallay, p. 59.

[37]  Ibidem, p. 57.

[38]  McGuckin, p. VI.

[39]  Gallay, p. 38.

[40]  Ibidem, pp. 35; 37.

[41]  Gallay, pp. 43-45.

[42]  Ibidem, p. 44.

[43]  Ibidem, p. 45-46.

[44]  Ibidem, p. 48.

[45]  Gallay, p. 78.

[46]  McGuckin, p. 19.

[47]  Gallay, p. 49.

[48]  Gallay, p. 37.

[49]  McGuckin, p. 17.

[50]  Ibidem, p. 15.

[51]  McGuckin, p. 15.

[52]  Ibidem, p. 14.

[53]  Ibidem, p. VIII.

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