It’s been ages since I last posted. Life has been crazy. I’ve gone from being the associate pastor at Bexley UMC to the pastor at The Plains UMC. I moved about an hour and a half south for the new position and, right now, all of my life is in boxes. Needless to say, I’ve not had a lot of spare time for reading.
Once I got a moment to myself, naturally, I wanted to find a saint who had been through the same sort of challenges and read up about how they handled their big transition. I landed on one of my favorites: Gregory of Nazianzus. This is the fourth post I’ve written about him. Previously, I’ve written about his poetry, his take on theosis, and his refreshing melancholy in the face of the modern obsession with happiness, but this is the first time I’ve ventured out of the poetry of his retirement years.
In his younger days (32), Gregory was chosen for ordination a priest. His dad (also named Gregory) was the local bishop in Nazianzus and he found his son’s help invaluable in his ministry. His son managed to help him navigate the political and doctrinal challenges of the Arian Creed of 359 (Gregory Senior signed on as a supporter of a heretical creed and made a bunch of enemies until his son convinced him to apologize and withdraw his support), and besides that, he was incredibly capable as a theologian and pastoral care provider. Unfortunately, Gregory Jr. had no interest in actually being a priest. He wanted to be a monk! His ordination moved forward anyway, which was kind of a thing at the time. Ancient theologians are always getting priest-ed without wanting it. It’s humility trope—the most suitable person to put in power was supposed to be the guy who is too humble to want it. It’s usually reasonable to assume it’s being exaggerated for the sake of a good story. In Gregory’s case, it’s safe to assume he REALLY didn’t want to be ordained. He ran away for a few months, leaving his church really peeved at him, and after he finally did return, he called his ordination a “noble tyranny” in his first sermon (Or. 1, par. 1). If he was just trying to come off as humble, he went a little too hard.
In any case, Gregory was someone who knew what it was like to have his life uprooted for the Church and learned to thrive in the midst of it. How did he do it? I picked through his first two orations. The first is the sermon he gave when he returned to Nazianzus on Easter after a few months of hiding. The second is something he wrote to explain himself when people weren’t so thrilled with him after he returned (nobody came to church for a while in protest—church politics never change). I found a few gems in each.
The first one was certainly the lesser of the two. He doesn’t dwell much on his flight and spends most of the time talking about Easter. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad he didn’t make the Easter sermon all about him. That’s a great move. At the same time, I’m here for that juicy personal drama. The fact that it’s not here limited my interest. Nevertheless, I liked his biggest reference to his flight:
A Mystery anointed me; I withdrew a little while at a Mystery, as much as was needful to examine myself; now I come in with a Mystery, bringing with me the Day as a good defender of my cowardice and weakness; that He Who to-day rose again from the dead may renew me also by His Spirit; and, clothing me with the new Man, may give me to His New Creation, to those who are begotten after God, as a good modeller and teacher for Christ, willingly both dying with Him and rising again with Him.Or. 1, par. 2
How eloquent! I appreciate his willingness to name his flaws. To call yourself a weak coward is pretty intense! But he didn’t shy away. It wasn’t that the task was too great; it’s that his courage failed him and he needed to step away and reevaluate himself. God’s grace is enough to cover it.
There are also several references to mysteries. As I read it, the first mystery appears to be his ordination. He withdrew because of the weight of the sacrament bestowed on him. Now, he returns proclaiming a second mystery, which is the mystery of the resurrection of Jesus and the new life bestowed on us all. By this promise, even one who was a coward can be born into the new man that God desires.
The second oration was a little juicier. This one wasn’t a sermon and was explicitly intended as an explanation of his absence, so I got pages upon pages of him giving personal details about his challenge in facing a big transition. This is what I came here for. It starts out:
I have been defeated, and own my defeat. I subjected myself to the Lord, and prayed unto Him.Or. 2 par 1
What a bombastic opening. He immediately reasserts the best of what he said in his sermon for those who didn’t attend worship that day. Why was I gone? Because I was at war with God. I have laid down my weapons and been defeated. I am subjecting myself to him. I’m no longer running. I’m digging in.
In the ensuing paragraphs, he discusses his respect for God’s sacred order, his meager qualifications, and his emotions through it all. The big crescendo of his argument builds as he points to the duty of a priest:
[T]he scope of our art is to provide the soul with wings, to rescue it from the world and give it to God, and to watch over that which is in His image, if it abides, to take it by the hand, if it is in danger, or restore it, if ruined, to make Christ to dwell in the heart by the Spirit: and, in short, to deify, and bestow heavenly bliss upon, one who belongs to the heavenly host.Or. 1, par. 22
He goes all out after this, going on for paragraphs about how this is, “the wish of the prophets and the law…why God was united to the flesh by means of the soul…why the new [covenant] was substituted for the old…” etc. (or 2, par 23-25). This is, in his eyes, the summation of it all. The whole of the job of a priest is to assist God in healing the core essence of a person. In light of this incredible duty, how could anyone be surprised that he balked for a moment? And yet, he ultimately accepts his new priestly responsibilities, saying, “I fell down and humbled myself under the mighty hand of God… now I am commissioned to exalt Him in the congregation of the people and praise Him in the seat of the elders,” (or 2, par. 115). What once seemed like a terrifying possibility is now a duty. The weight of the task may be heavy, and the responsibility unexpected, but he now recognizes that it has fallen to him to glorify God in this way. God put him in this place. Who is he to argue? And who is any detractor to deny him this place that God gave to him?
I don’t know that a lot of modern people can relate deeply to being stolen away from the monastery and ordained against their will, but Gregory still lays out a lot of great principles that are worth embodying. First, he’s honest! He owns his initial shortcoming and doesn’t try to cover it up. The whole thing could have been a total disaster, but he acknowledges his mistakes (something especially difficult when you’re under immense pressure) and ends up making the whole thing a moment that reflects the weightiness of God’s calling and the heights of God’s mercy. More importantly, he learns to trust God all the more after being called to something new. Big transitions are hard. It’s easy to get nervous, upset, frustrated, weirded-out, etc. But God isn’t just randomly switching things up. He’s placed us exactly where we are for the sake of our own holiness and the deification of those around us. Sometimes we might get negative. It’s certainly not ideal, but even some of the greats had their moments of despair. We need to bounce back and recognize the importance of the duties he’s given us. The heights of what God calls us to are greater than anything we could possibly imagine for ourselves.
I hope I can keep the spirit of post-flight Gregory as I adjust to my new setting down here in The Plains. I know God put me here for a reason, and I hope I can do work that brings him glory.