St Gregory Nazianzen was by nature a gentle man and by genius and training a scholar, but throughout his life he was involved in controversies, disputes and misunderstanding in which his sensitive and essentially reasonable temperament suffered much, and not only from his ostensible ‘enemies.’ Nevertheless he has been declared a Doctor of the Church, and he won for himself the title ‘the Theologian’; he is an outstanding example of those saints whose lives, as far as immediate results go, seem a series of disappointments and ill-success, yet who with the passage of time are seen increasingly to be great both in themselves and in their work.
Gregory was born at Arianzus in Cappadocia into a family of saints; his father was bishop of Nazianzus–in that place and time a married clergy was the normal rule. He was educated in Cappadocia, in Palestine, at Alexandria, and then went on to spend some ten years studying in Athens. It was during this time that he became a close friend of St Basil. When he was thirty Gregory left Athens and joined St Basil in a life of retreat, prayer and study which foreshadowed the pattern of monastic life both in the east and in the west.
Gregory then went home to help his aging father, who in a manner not uncommon at the time almost forcibly ordained him. Shocked deeply at the task that had been forced on his own profound sense of unworthiness, Gregory fled to Basil, but soon returned, and wrote a treatise, an apology for his flight. Gregory was one of those who could touch nothing without leaving on it the seal of a mind of exceptional power and fineness: this treatise is a study of the priesthood which has been a source of inspiration to such as St Gregory the Great, and is still to all who deeply consider the subject today.
After a period of troubled work at Nazianzus, during which his friendship with St Basil was marred by his own inability to be belligerent where the things of the church were concerned, he spent five peaceful years in retirement from the affairs of church government. He was then invited to go to Constantinople, where most of the churches were given over to the Arian heresy. Here the popular method of solving religious disputes was by fighting in the streets or by what was even more distasteful to such a person–intrigue. Gregory went, with many misgivings.
His lack of pomp made him personally unpopular, the Arian rabble set out to annoy him, and friends whom he trusted betrayed him. Yet his famous sermons on the Trinity won him and the church increasing respect and renown, and even St Jerome came in from his desert to hear him. He was made bishop of Constantinople, but the opposition was so noisy that Gregory insisted on resigning. As soon as he could he went into retirement, spending his last years contentedly in study, writing and mortification.