Orations of Gregory of Nazianzus/In Defence of His Flight to Pontus
by Gregory of Nazianzus
translated by Charles E. Browne & James E. Swallow
We observe each other’s sins, not to bewail them, but to make them subjects of reproach, not to heal them, but to aggravate them, and excuse our own evil deeds by the wounds of our neighbours. Bad and good men are distinguished not according to personal character, but by their disagreement or friendship with ourselves. We praise one day what we revile the next, denunciation at the hands of others is a passport to our admiration; so magnanimous are we in our viciousness, that everything is frankly forgiven to impiety.
Everything has reverted to the original state of things before the world, with its present fair order and form, came into being. The general confusion and irregularity cry for some organising hand and power. Or, if you will, it is like a battle at night by the faint light of the moon, when none can discern the faces of friends or foes; or like a sea fight on the surge, with the driving winds, and boiling foam, and dashing waves, and crashing vessels, with the thrusts of poles, the pipes of boatswains, the groans of the fallen, while we make our voices heard above the din, and not knowing what to do, and having, alas! no opportunity for showing our valour, assail one another, and fall by one another’s hands.
Nor indeed is there any distinction between the state of the people and that of the priesthood: but it seems to me to be a simple fulfilment of the ancient curse, “As with the people so with the priest.” Nor again are the great and eminent men affected otherwise than the majority; nay, they are openly at war with the priests, and their piety is an aid to their powers of persuasion. And indeed, provided that it be on behalf of the faith, and of the highest and most important questions, let them be thus disposed, and I blame them not; nay, to say the truth, I go so far as to praise and congratulate them. Yea! would that I were one of those who contend and incur hatred for the truth’s sake: or rather, I can boast of being one of them. For better is a laudable war than a peace which severs a man from God: and therefore it is that the Spirit arms the gentle warrior, as one who is able to wage war in a good cause.
But at the present time there are some who go to war even about small matters and to no purpose, and, with great ignorance and audacity, accept, as an associate in their ill-doing, anyone whoever he may be. Then everyone makes the faith his pretext, and this venerable name is dragged into their private quarrels. Consequently, as was probable, we are hated, even among the Gentiles, and, what is harder still, we cannot say that this is without just cause. Nay, even the best of our own people are scandalized, while this result is not surprising in the case of the multitude, who are ill-disposed to accept anything that is good.
Sinners are planning upon our backs; and what we devise against each other, they turn against us all: and we have become a new spectacle, not to angels and men, as says Paul, that bravest of athletes, in his contest with principalities and powers, but to almost all wicked men, and at every time and place, in the public squares, at carousals, at festivities, and times of sorrow. 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.
These are the results of our intestine warfare, and our extreme readiness to strive about goodness and gentleness, and our inexpedient excess of love for God. Wrestling, or any other athletic contest, is only permitted according to fixed laws, and the man will be shouted down and disgraced, and lose the victory, who breaks the laws of wrestling, or acts unfairly in any other contest, contrary to the rules laid down for the contest, however able and skilful he may be; and shall anyone contend for Christ in an unchristlike manner, and yet be pleasing to peace for having fought unlawfully in her name.
Yea, even now, when Christ is invoked, the devils tremble, and not even by our ill-doing has the power of this Name been extinguished, while we are not ashamed to insult a cause and name so venerable; shouting it, and having it shouted in return, almost in public, and every day; for My Name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.
Of external warfare I am not afraid, nor of that wild beast, and fulness of evil, who has now arisen against the churches, though he may threaten fire, sword, wild beasts, precipices, chasms; though he may show himself more inhuman than all previous madmen, and discover fresh tortures of greater severity. I have one remedy for them all, one road to victory; I will glory in Christ namely, death for Christ’s sake.
For my own warfare, however, I am at a loss what course to pursue, what alliance, what word of wisdom, what grace to devise, with what panoply to arm myself, against the wiles of the wicked one. What Moses is to conquer him by stretching out his hands upon the mount, in order that the cross, thus typified and prefigured, may prevail? What Joshua, as his successor, arrayed alongside the Captain of the Lord’s hosts? What David, either by harping, or fighting with his sling, and girded by God with strength unto the battle, and with his fingers trained to war? What Samuel, praying and sacrificing for the people, and anointing as king one who can gain the victory? What Jeremiah, by writing lamentations for Israel, is fitly to lament these things?
Who will cry aloud, Spare Thy People, O Lord, and give not Thine heritage to reproach, that the nations should rule over them? What Noah, and Job, and Daniel, who are reckoned together as men of prayer, will pray for us, that we may have a slight respite from warfare, and recover ourselves, and recognize one another for a while, and no longer, instead of united Israel, be Judah and Israel, Rehoboam and Jeroboam, Jerusalem and Samaria, in turn delivered up because of our sins, and in turn lamented.
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, that the beloved had kicked, that we were become backsliding children, who are the luxuriant vine, the true vine, all fruitful, all beautiful, springing up splendidly with showers from on high. For the diadem of beauty, the signet of glory, the crown of magnificence has been changed for me into shame; and if anyone, in face of these things, is daring and courageous, he has my blessing on his daring and courage.
I have said nothing yet of the internal warfare within ourselves, and in our passions, in which we are engaged night and day against the body of our humiliation, either secretly or openly, and against the tide which tosses and whirls us hither and thither, by the aid of our senses and other sources of the pleasures of this life; and against the miry clay in which we have been fixed; and against the law of sin, which wars against the law of the spirit, and strives to destroy the royal image in us, and all the divine emanation which has been bestowed upon us; so that it is difficult for anyone, either by a long course of philosophic training, and gradual separation of the noble and enlightened part of the soul from that which is debased and yoked with darkness, or by the mercy of God, or by both together, and by a constant practice of looking upward, to overcome the depressing power of matter. And before a man has, as far as possible, gained this superiority, and sufficiently purified his mind, and far surpassed his fellows in nearness to God, I do not think it safe for him to be entrusted with the rule over souls, or the office of mediator (for such, I take it, a priest is) between God and man.
What is it that has induced this fear in me, that, instead of supposing me to be needlessly afraid, you may highly commend my foresight? I hear from Moses himself, when God spake to him, that, although many were bidden to come to the mount, one of whom was even Aaron, with his two sons who were priests, and seventy elders of the senate, the rest were ordered to worship afar off, and Moses alone to draw near, and the people were not to go up with him. For it is not everyone who may draw near to God, but only one who, like Moses, can bear the glory of God. Moreover, before this, when the law was first given, the trumpet-blasts, and lightnings, and thunders, and darkness, and the smoke of the whole mountain, and the terrible threats that if even a beast touched the mountain it should be stoned, and other like alarms, kept back the rest of the people, for whom it was a great privilege, after careful purification, merely to hear the voice of God. But Moses actually went up and entered into the cloud, and was charged with the law, and received the tables, which belong, for the multitude, to the letter, but, for those who are above the multitude, to the spirit.
I hear again that Nadab and Abihu, for having merely offered incense with strange fire, were with strange fire destroyed, the instrument of their impiety being used for their punishment, and their destruction following at the very time and place of their sacrilege; and not even their father Aaron, who was next to Moses in the favor of God, could save them. I know also of Eli the priest, and a little later of Uzzah, the former made to pay the penalty for his sons’ transgression, in daring to violate the sacrifices by an untimely exaction of the first fruits of the cauldrons, although he did not condone their impiety, but frequently rebuked them;the other, because he only touched the ark, which was being thrown off the cart by the ox, and though he saved it, was himself destroyed, in God’s jealousy for the reverence due to the ark.
I know also that not even bodily blemishes in either priests or victims passed without notice, but that it was required by the law that perfect sacrifices must be offered by perfect men—a symbol, I take it, of integrity of soul. It was not lawful for everyone to touch the priestly vesture, or any of the holy vessels; nor might the sacrifices themselves be consumed except by the proper persons, and at the proper time and place; nor might the anointing oil nor the compounded incense be imitated; nor might anyone enter the temple who was not in the most minute particular pure in both soul and body; so far was the Holy of holies removed from presumptuous access, that it might be entered by one man only once a year; so far were the veil, and the mercy-seat, and the ark, and the Cherubim, from the general gaze and touch.
Since then I knew these things, and that no one is worthy of the mightiness of God, and the sacrifice, and priesthood, who has not first presented himself to God, a living, holy sacrifice, and set forth the reasonable, well-pleasing service, and sacrificed to God the sacrifice of praise and the contrite spirit, which is the only sacrifice required of us by the Giver of all; how could I dare to offer to Him the external sacrifice, the antitype of the great mysteries, or clothe myself with the garb and name of priest, before my hands had been consecrated by holy works; before my eyes had been accustomed to gaze safely upon created things, with wonder only for the Creator, and without injury to the creature; before my ear had been sufficiently opened to the instruction of the Lord, and He had opened mine ear to hear without heaviness, and had set a golden earring with precious sardius, that is, a wise man’s word in an obedient ear; before my mouth had been opened to draw in the Spirit, and opened wide to be filled with the spirit of speaking mysteries and doctrines; and my lips bound, to use the words of wisdom, by divine knowledge, and, as I would add, loosed in due season: before my tongue had been filled with exultation, and become an instrument of Divine melody, awaking with glory, awaking right early, and laboring till it cleave to my jaws: before my feet had been set upon the rock, made like hart’s feet, and my footsteps directed in a godly fashion so that they should not well-nigh slip, nor slip at all; before all my members had become instruments of righteousness, and all mortality had been put off, and swallowed up of life, and had yielded to the Spirit?
Who is the man, whose heart has never been made to burn, as the Scriptures have been opened to him, with the pure words of God which have been tried in a furnace; who has not, by a triple inscription of them upon the breadth of his heart, attained the mind of Christ; nor been admitted to the treasures which to most men remain hidden, secret, and dark, to gaze upon the riches therein? and become able to enrich others, comparing spiritual things with spiritual.
Who is the man who has never beheld, as our duty is to behold it, the fair beauty of the Lord, nor has visited His temple, or rather, become the temple of God, and the habitation of Christ in the Spirit? Who is the man who has never recognized the correlation and distinction between figures and the truth, so that by withdrawing from the former and cleaving to the latter, and by thus escaping from the oldness of the letter and serving the newness of the spirit, he may clean pass over to grace from the law, which finds its spiritual fulfilment in the dissolution of the body.
Who is the man who has never, by experience and contemplation, traversed the entire series of the titles and powers of Christ, both those more lofty ones which originally were His, and those more lowly ones which He later assumed for our sake—viz.: God, the Son, the Image, the Word, the Wisdom, the Truth, the Light, the Life, the Power, the Vapour, the Emanation, the Effulgence, the Maker, the King, the Head, the Law, the Way, the Door, the Foundation, the Rock, the Pearl, the Peace, the Righteousness, the Sanctification, the Redemption, the Man, the Servant, the Shepherd, the Lamb, the High Priest, the Victim, the Firstborn before creation, the Firstborn from the dead, the Resurrection: who is the man who hearkens, but pays no heed, to these names so pregnant with reality, and has never yet held communion with, nor been made partaker of, the Word, in any of the real relations signified by each of these names which He bears?
Who, in fine, is the man who, although he has never applied himself to, nor learnt to speak, the hidden wisdom of God in a mystery, although he is still a babe, still fed with milk, still of those who are not numbered in Israel, nor enrolled in the army of God, although he is not yet able to take up the Cross of Christ like a man, although he is possibly not yet one of the more honorable members, yet will joyfully and eagerly accept his appointment as head of the fulness of Christ? No one, if he will listen to my judgment and accept my advice! This is of all things most to be feared, this is the extremest of dangers in the eyes of everyone who understands the magnitude of success, the utter ruin of failure.
Let others sail for merchandise, I used to say, and cross the wide oceans, and constantly contend with winds and waves, to gain great wealth, if so it should chance, and run great risks in their eagerness for sailing and merchandise; but, for my part, I greatly prefer to stay ashore and plough a short but pleasant furrow, saluting at a respectful distance the sea and its gains, to live as best I can upon a poor and scanty store of barley-bread, and drag my life along in safety and calm, rather than expose myself to so long and great a risk for the sake of great gains.
For one in high estate, if he fail to make further progress and to disseminate virtue still more widely, and contents himself with slight results, incurs punishment, as having spent a great light upon the illumination of a little house, or girt round the limbs of a boy the full armor of a man. On the contrary, a man of low estate may with safety assume a light burden, and escape the risk of the ridicule and increased danger which would attend him if he attempted a task beyond his powers. For, as we have heard, it is not seemly for a man to build a tower, unless he has sufficient to finish it.
Such is the defence which I have been able to make, perhaps at immoderate length, for my flight. Such are the reasons which, to my pain and possibly to yours, carried me away from you, my friends and brothers; yet, as it seemed to me at the time, with irresistible force. My longing after you, and the sense of your longing for me, have, more than anything else, led to my return, for nothing inclines us so strongly to love as mutual affection.
In the next place there was my care, my duty, the hoar hairs and weakness of my holy parents, who were more greatly distressed on my account than by their advanced age—of this Patriarch Abraham whose person is honored by me, and numbered among the angels, and of Sarah, who travailed in my spiritual birth by instructing me in the truth. Now, I had specially pledged myself to become the stay of their old age and the support of their weakness, a pledge which, to the best of my power, I have fulfilled, even at the expense of philosophy itself, the most precious of possessions and titles to me; or, to speak more truly, although I made it the first object of my philosophy to appear to be no philosopher, I could not bear that my labor in consequence of a single purpose should be wasted, nor yet that blessing should be lost, which one of the saints of old is said to have stolen from his father, whom he deceived by the food which he offered to him, and the hairy appearance he assumed, thus attaining a good object by disgraceful trickery. These are the two causes of my submission and tractability. Nor is it, perchance, unreasonable that my arguments should yield and submit to them both, for there is a time to be conquered, as I also think there is for every purpose, and it is better to be honorably overcome than to win a dangerous and lawless victory.
There is a third reason of the highest importance which I will further mention, and then dismiss the rest. I remembered the days of old, and, recurring to one of the ancient histories, drew counsel for myself therefrom as to my present conduct; for let us not suppose these events to have been recorded without a purpose, nor that they are a mere assemblage of words and deeds gathered together for the pastime of those who listen to them, as a kind of bait for the ears, for the sole purpose of giving pleasure. Let us leave such jesting to the legends and the Greeks, who think but little of the truth, and enchant ear and mind by the charm of their fictions and the daintiness of their style.
We however, who extend the accuracy of the Spirit to the merest stroke and tittle, will never admit the impious assertion that even the smallest matters were dealt with haphazard by those who have recorded them, and have thus been borne in mind down to the present day: on the contrary, their purpose has been to supply memorials and instructions for our consideration under similar circumstances, should such befall us, and that the examples of the past might serve as rules and models, for our warning and imitation.
What then is the story, and wherein lies its application? For, perhaps, it would not be amiss to relate it, for the general security. Jonah also was fleeing from the face of God, or rather, thought that he was fleeing: but he was overtaken by the sea, and the storm, and the lot, and the whale’s belly, and the three days’ entombment, the type of a greater mystery. He fled from having to announce the dread and awful message to the Ninevites, and from being subsequently, if the city was saved by repentance, convicted of falsehood: not that he was displeased at the salvation of the wicked, but he was ashamed of being made an instrument of falsehood, and exceedingly zealous for the credit of prophecy, which was in danger of being destroyed in his person, since most men are unable to penetrate the depth of the Divine dispensation in such cases.
But, as I have learned from a man skilled in these subjects, and able to grasp the depth of the prophet, by means of a reasonable explanation of what seems unreasonable in the history, it was not this which caused Jonah to flee, and carried him to Joppa and again from Joppa to Tarshish, when he entrusted his stolen self to the sea: for it was not likely that such a prophet should be ignorant of the design of God, viz., to bring about, by means of the threat, the escape of the Ninevites from the threatened doom, according to His great wisdom, and unsearchable judgments, and according to His ways which are beyond our tracing and finding out; nor that, if he knew this he would refuse to co-operate with God in the use of the means which He designed for their salvation. Besides, to imagine that Jonah hoped to hide himself at sea, and escape by his flight the great eye of God, is surely utterly absurd and stupid, and unworthy of credit, not only in the case of a prophet, but even in the case of any sensible man, who has only a slight perception of God, Whose power is over all.
On the contrary, as my instructor said, and as I am myself convinced, Jonah knew better than any one the purpose of his message to the Ninevites, and that, in planning his flight, although he changed his place, he did not escape from God. Nor is this possible for any one else, either by concealing himself in the bosom of the earth, or in the depths of the sea, or by soaring on wings, if there be any means of doing so, and rising into the air, or by abiding in the lowest depths of hell, or by enveloping himself in a thick cloud, or by any other of the many devices for ensuring escape. For God alone of all things cannot be escaped from or contended with; if He wills to seize and bring them under His hand, He outstrips the swift, He outwits the wise, He overthrows the strong, He abases the lofty, He subdues rashness, He represses power.
Jonah then was not ignorant of the mighty hand of God, with which he threatened other men, nor did he imagine that he could utterly escape the Divine power; this we are not to believe: but when he saw the falling away of Israel, and perceived the passing over of the grace of prophecy to the Gentiles—this was the cause of his retirement from preaching and of his delay in fulfilling the command; accordingly he left the watchtower of joy, for this is the meaning of Joppa in Hebrew, I mean his former dignity and reputation, and flung himself into the deep of sorrow: and hence he is tempest-tossed, and falls asleep, and is wrecked, and aroused from sleep, and taken by lot, and confesses his flight, and is cast into sea, and swallowed, but not destroyed, by the whale; but there he calls upon God, and, marvellous as it is, on the third day he, like Christ, is delivered: but my treatment of this topic must stand over, and shall shortly, if God permit, be more deliberately worked out.
Now however, to return to my original point, the thought and question occurred to me, that although he might possibly meet with some indulgence, if reluctant to prophesy, for the cause which I mentioned—yet, in my own case, what could be said, what defence could be made, if I longer remained restive, and rejected the yoke of ministry, which, though I know not whether to call it light or heavy, had at any rate been laid upon me.
For if it be granted, and this alone can be strongly asserted in such matters, that we are far too low to perform the priest’s office before God, and that we can only be worthy of the sanctuary after we have become worthy of the Church, and worthy of the post of president, after being worthy of the sanctuary, yet some one else may perhaps refuse to acquit us on the charge of disobedience. Now terrible are the threatenings against disobedience, and terrible are the penalties which ensue upon it; as indeed are those on the other side, if, instead of being reluctant, and shrinking back, and concealing ourselves as Saul did among his father’s stuff —although called to rule but for a short time—if, I say, we come forward readily, as though to a slight and most easy task, whereas it is not safe even to resign it, nor to amend by second thoughts our first.
On this account I had much toilsome consideration to discover my duty, being set in the midst betwixt two fears, of which the one held me back, the other urged me on. For a long while I was at a loss between them, and after wavering from side to side, and, like a current driven by inconstant winds, inclining first in this direction, then in that, I at last yielded to the stronger, and the fear of disobedience overcame me, and has carried me off. 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.
Moreover, to distinguish still more clearly between them, we have, against the fear of office, a possible help in the law of obedience, inasmuch as God in His goodness rewards our faith, and makes a perfect ruler of the man who has confidence in Him, and places all his hopes in Him; but against the danger of disobedience I know of nothing which can help us, and of no ground to encourage our confidence. For it is to be feared that we shall have to hear these words concerning those who have been entrusted to us: I will require their souls at your hands; and, Because ye have rejected me, and not been leaders and rulers of my people, I also will reject you, that I should not be king over you; and, As ye refused to hearken to My voice, and turned a stubborn back, and were disobedient, so shall it be when ye call upon Me, and I will not regard nor give ear to your prayer. God forbid that these words should come to us from the just Judge, for when we sing of His mercy we must also by all means sing of His judgment.
I resort once again to history, and on considering the men of best repute in ancient days, who were ever preferred by grace to the office of ruler or prophet, I discover that some readily complied with the call, others deprecated the gift, and that neither those who drew back were blamed for timidity, nor those who came forward for eagerness. The former stood in awe of the greatness of the ministry, the latter trustfully obeyed Him Who called them. Aaron was eager, but Moses resisted, Isaiah readily submitted, but Jeremiah was afraid of his youth, and did not venture to prophesy until he had received from God a promise and power beyond his years.
By these arguments I charmed myself, and by degrees my soul relaxed and became ductile, like iron, and time came to the aid of my arguments, and the testimonies of God, to which I had entrusted my whole life, were my counsellors. Therefore I was not rebellious, neither turned away back, saith my Lord, when, instead of being called to rule, He was led, as a sheep to the slaughter; but I fell down and humbled myself under the mighty hand of God, and asked pardon for my former idleness and disobedience, if this is at all laid to my charge. I held my peace, but I will not hold my peace for ever: I withdrew for a little while, till I had considered myself and consoled my grief: but now I am commissioned to exalt Him in the congregation of the people, and praise Him in the seat of the elders. If my former conduct deserved blame, my present action merits pardon.
What further need is there of words. Here am I, my pastors and fellow-pastors, here am I, thou holy flock, worthy of Christ, the Chief Shepherd, here am I, my father, utterly vanquished, and your subject according to the laws of Christ rather than according to those of the land: here is my obedience, reward it with your blessing. Lead me with your prayers, guide me with your words, establish me with your spirit. The blessing of the father establisheth the houses of children, and would that both I and this spiritual house may be established, the house which I have longed for, which I pray may be my rest for ever, when I have been passed on from the church here to the church yonder, the general assembly of the firstborn, who are written in heaven.
Such is my defence: its reasonableness I have set forth: and may the God of peace, Who made both one, and has restored us to each other, Who setteth kings upon thrones, and raiseth up the poor out of the dust and lifteth up the beggar from the dunghill, Who chose David His servant and took him away from the sheepfolds, though he was the least and youngest of the sons of Jesse, Who gave the word to those who preach the gospel with great power for the perfection of the gospel,—may He Himself hold me by my right hand, and guide me with His counsel, and receive me with glory, Who is a Shepherd to shepherds and a Guide to guides: that we may feed His flock with knowledge, not with the instruments of a foolish shepherd, according to the blessing, and not according to the curse pronounced against the men of former days: may He give strength and power unto his people, and Himself present to Himself His flock resplendent and spotless and worthy of the fold on high, in the habitation of them that rejoice, in the splendour of the saints, so that in His temple everyone, both flock and shepherds together may say, Glory, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to Whom be all glory for ever and ever. Amen.