I read a short biography of Gregory of Nazianzus in preparation for preaching today, and this sentence caught my attention:
Although he was unimpressive in personal appearance and bearing, Gregory had an outstanding power of oratory which he used to great effect in his ministry at Constantinople.
This description of Gregory made me think of the expression: “You can’t judge a book by its cover.”
Like Susan Boyle of our time, Gregory of Nazianzus—the fourth-century Eastern saint whom we remember today—was like a REALLY good book hidden behind a very deceptive cover. I call him “Gregory the Reluctant,” because he was coerced by his father—pretty much against his will—into becoming a priest. And he was later coerced by his school friend—very much against his will—into becoming a bishop.
If Gregory had had his own way, he would have continued to be a philosopher and rhetoritician, or even a monastic mystic. But instead Gregory the Reluctant ended up being a priest where—(SURPRISE)—his oratorical talents were very much appreciated. In fact, Gregory the Reluctant was such a powerful preacher that “even Jerome came in from the desert to hear him” (Jerome having been one of the early solitary monastics). Gregory’s “Five Theological Orations,” for which he is renown even today, began as sermons he preached on the nature of the Trinity, defining the deity of Christ in a time when the church was torn apart by this very question.
In some of Gregory’s other 40 orations, all of which we have today, we see that he foreshadowed Mariology (the worship of Jesus’ mother as “God-bearer”), articulated the theology behind praying for the dead, and was “unswervingly Nicene” in a way that influenced the outcome of the Council of Constantinople in 381, the follow-on to the Council of Nicaea which determined the final form of our Nicene Creed.
And, if all that were not enough, Gregory wrote 243 letters and 507 poems. The letters have been judged to be “the finest literary products of his time.” And the poems? Well, history remembers Gregory the “first major Christian poet.”
Based on this description of Gregory’s talents, we can see that the book that was his life was filled with many fine treasures, even if that book was covered with a humble cover.
Maybe the problem wasn’t that Gregory had an understated cover, but that he hung out in a library of really ornate, good-looking books. Both of Gregory’s parents, Gregory and Nonna, became saints of the church. His school chum became the saint we know as Basil the Great. Basil’s brother and sister, Gregory of Nyssa and Macrina, you guessed it, were also later named saints. Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and this Gregory are known even today as the “Cappadocian Fathers” because they collectively shaped the theology and practice of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. So our Gregory lived in a time and place when and where he was amid a whole library of really good books, inside and out.
What can we learn today from Gregory’s life (other than to not judge a book by its cover)? The most obvious lesson is to bloom where we are planted, to use whatever talents we have to God’s glory wherever we might find ourselves. Sometimes, our plans just are not God’s plans. And other times, when we ourselves have strayed from the ideal, God can use us to his honor and glory even when we have ended up far from where we should have been in the first place.
I want to end by reading you Gregory’s Prayer for Encountering the Text (of scripture):
Lord, as I read the psalms let me hear you singing.
As I read your words, let me hear you speaking.
As I reflect on each page, let me see your image.
And as I seek to put your precepts into practice, let my heart be filled with joy.
 Gregory of Nazianzus, 329-389. From the Harper-Collins Book of Prayers, p. 176.