The fabric of Christendom was woven into its strength and beauty of character by the threads of men such as St. Gregory the Theologian, who became one of the four great doctors of the Church during the 4th century AD, along with Saints Basil the Great, John Chrysostom and Athanasios the Great. He is further remembered as one of the three so-called Cappadocian Fathers, an honour he shares with Sts Basil and Gregory of Nyssa. He is also recognised as the champion of Orthodoxy against the heretical doctrine of Arianism.
The son of a bishop for whom he was named, Gregory was born in Arianzos in Cappadocia, Asia Minor, in 329 AD. He was educated in Caesaria and then in Athens, where he met Basil with whom he became close friends linked in a common resolve to serve Christ. At the suggestion of Basil, the two friends became monastics at a retreat in Pontos, where each embarked on a spiritual journey that was to lead them both to greatness. It was with some degree of reluctance, however, that Gregory left the monastery to be ordained into the priesthood to serve as an assistant to his father, the bishop of Nazianzos. The son's brilliance as a preacher outshone his father's. When barely thirty years old, he won acclaim throughout the region as a mighty warrior in the fight against paganism and heresy.
It was largely through the influence of Gregory that his friend Basil was made bishop of Caesaria. In the process, he himself was made bishop of the relatively unimportant town of Sasima, a post he never sought and in which he never served, preferring to remain with his father in Nazianzos. He took over the church of Nazianzos after the death of his father in 374. With the loss of his father, he had a longing to return to asceticism in some retreat, there to meditate, pray, and interpret the Scriptures. He was allowed to go to the seclusion of Seleucia in Isauria, where his tenure as an eremite was short-lived.
After the death of the Arian Emperor Valens, followed closely by the death of Gregory's friend Basil, Gregory was called to Constantinople. He was to head the reorganisation of the Orthodox Church which had been torn asunder by the heresy of Arianism from within and by the harassment of pagans without. In the course of this holy work, he achieved distinction as an orator, traditionalist, and a crusader that earned him the title of "Theologian" despite the opposition of Maximos the Cynic, who had been set up against him by the bishop of Alexandria.
When the Orthodox Emperor Theodosios came to power in 380 AD, Gregory assumed the direction of the magnificent Church of Aghia Sophia, the most prestigious house of God in all Christendom. While director of this mighty church, Gregory took part in a synod held in Constantinople in 381AD to settle the differences among the prelates of the Church. Known as the Second Ecumenical Synod, it resolved the issues and voted to accept Gregory as patriarch of Constantinople. It further added its official support to the Nicene doctrine which was championed at the First Synod in Nicaea.
For as long as he held the post of spiritual leader of Orthodoxy the gallant Gregory served with honour and dignity. Moreover, he was the instrument of God in unifying the Church into a cohesive unit that could withstand any internal or external pressure. He grew weary of the personal attacks that are the occupational hazard of a patriarch and after a moving farewell address, he retired to live out his days in meditation, writing, and prayer. He died 7 February 388 AD.
St. Gregory the Theologian
St. Gregory the Theologian (326-389) was the son of Gregory and Nonna, a very pious woman. Even before his birth she promised to dedicate him to God and used all her power to lean him toward the Lord. Gregory considered his education from his mother to have been the most important in his life. Because of his eminent capabilities, St. Gregory received an excellent education. He studied in the schools of Palestinian Caesarea, which contained a rich library compiled by Pamphil of Alexandria; there he studied the works of Origen. Later, in Athens, he became close to Basil the Great, whom he had known before, and whose friendship he considered greater than the highest school. In Athens, the saintly friends had one room and one way of life; only two paths were known to them: one led to the Church of God, the other to the academy. In Athens, St. Gregory met Julian the Apostate, who rejected Christianity when he became Emperor, and strove to resurrect paganism in the Roman Empire from 361 to 363. St. Gregory has left a living image of this angry and crafty enemy of the Church. At the age of 26 St. Gregory accepted baptism.
St. Gregory refrained from any community obligation for a long time after returning to his fatherland. Reflecting on God, praying, reading Divine Scripture, writing inspired words and songs, and attending to the needs of his aged parents, these were his only occupation. He also spent time with Basil the Great in the desert, which he considered the happiest in his life. His father, who was already a bishop was in need of an assistant. He called him back from the desert to Nazianzen and elevated him to a Presbyter. Even this rank intimidated Gregory with its title and the burden of its accompanying obligations, so that he withdrew to the solitude of the desert. Thereafter, having quieted the turmoil of his soul, he returned to his father. He accepted the priestly obligation with the comfort that he, in serving God, was helping his aged parent in his labors with his parish.
In the meantime, his friend Basil the Great had already reached the high rank of Archbishop. Wishing to have a loyal and enlightened helper in the management of the vast district, St. Basil offered Gregory a place as the main archpriest of his diocese, but St. Gregory turned away this honorable and influential office. Some time later St. Gregory was ordained Bishop of Sasima through a secret arrangement between Archbishop Basil and Gregory’s father. Seeing the will of God in this he accepted the ordination but refused the obligation; he continued to serve his father and the Nazianzen parish in the role of "vicar". In 374 his father died and his mother shortly thereafter. St. Gregory continued his father’s work for some time, managing the Nazianzen Church, when he became gravely ill. Upon recovering he went away to a solitary existence where he remained in prayer and fasting for about three years.
The Holy one could not conceal himself in a monastic cell, however. The Orthodox bishops and lay people elected him to the archbishop’s see in Constantinople. He arrived there at the height of Arianism, which had a grasp on all the churches in the capital. St. Gregory stopped at the home of his friends. He converted one of the rooms into a chapel which he called Anastasius (which means "resurrection"), with the hope that Orthodoxy would be resurrected here. He began to preach. The Arians insulted and derided him; they pelted him with stones and sent assassins. The people recognized their true pastor, however. St. Gregory notes that they seem to have been attracted to his chair like iron to a magnet. With his strong voice, exemplary life and ecclesiastic efforts he vanquished the enemies of the Church. Great numbers came from all over to listen to his inspired sermons. Listeners were collected around his chair not unlike a stormy sea, with their loud expressions of approval, clapping of hands and exclamations. Stenographers noted and preserved his words for posterity. Each week, thousands of people returned to the Orthodox Church from heresy.
Finally, after the enthronement of the Christian Emperor Theodosius (379-395), the unyielding Arians were banished from the Churches of the capital. St. Gregory then fought against the Macedonian heresy, which denied the Divinity of the Holy Ghost. He played a vital role in the sessions of the Second Ecumenical Council. Having completed his works, he refused the see of Constantinople, saying "Farewell my Cathedra—it is an enviable and perilous height." St. Gregory went to the town of Arianza near Nazianzen, and here in strict ascetic deeds he passed the last years of his life.
For his wonderful theological works, St. Gregory received from the Church the honorary status of Theologian and universal teacher. The Church refers to him in one of its prayers as the highest intellect, for delving into the deepest mysteries of the faith and being able to express her incomprehensible truths with a clear understanding and strict correctness. His sermons are filled with such poesy that many of his words have been set to music (St. John Damascene, et al.) for feast day canticles. Incorruptible parts of St. Gregory’s relics give off a wonderful fragrance to this day.
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