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Historical Sketches: Volumes 1 To 3 -Blessed John Henry Newman

“Who will give me in the wilderness a lodging-place of wayfaring men, and I will leave my people and depart from them. Because they are all adulterers, an assembly of transgressors; and they have bent their tongue, as a bow, for lies, and not for truth.”

1

“THIS, O Basil, to thee, from me,”—thus Gregory winds up his sermon upon Basil,—” this offering to thee from a tongue once most dear to thee! thy fellow in honour and in age! If it approaches to be worthy of thee, the praise is thine; for, relying upon thee, I have set about this oration concerning thee. But if it be beneath and much beside my hope, what is to be expected from one worn down with years, sickness, and regret for thee? However, the best we can is acceptable to God. But O that thou, divine and sacred heart, mayest watch over me from above, and that sting of my flesh, which God has given for my discipline, either end it by thy intercessions, or persuade me to bear it bravely! and mayest thou direct my whole life towards that which is most convenient! and when I depart hence, then mayest thou receive me into thy tabernacles!”—Orat. 43.

Gregory delivered this discourse on his return to Cæsarea from Constantinople, three years after St. Basil’s death; a busy, turbulent, eventful three years, in which he had been quite a different man from what he was before, though it was all past and over now, and was about to be succeeded by the same solitude in which Basil’s death found him.

Gregory disliked the routine intercourse of society; he disliked ecclesiastical business, he disliked publicity, he disliked strife, he felt his own manifold imperfections, he feared to disgrace his profession, and to lose his hope; he loved the independence of solitude, the tranquillity of private life; leisure for meditation, reflection, self-government, study, and literature. He admired, yet he playfully satirized, Basil’s lofty thoughts and heroic efforts. Yet, upon Basil’s death, Basil’s spirit, as it were, came into him; and within four months of it, he had become a preacher of the Catholic faith in an heretical metropolis, had formed a congregation, had set apart a place for orthodox worship, and had been stoned by the populace. Was it Gregory, or was it Basil, that blew the trumpet in Constantinople, and waged a successful war in the very seat of the enemy, in despite of all his fluctuations of mind, misgivings, fastidiousness, disgust with self, and love of quiet? Such was the power of the great Basil, triumphing in his death, though failing throughout his life. Within four or five years of his departure to his reward, all the objects were either realized, or in the way to be realized, which he had so vainly attempted, and so sadly waited for. His eyes had failed in longing; they waited for the morning, and death closed them ere it came. He died on the 1st of January, 379; on the 19th of the same month the glorious Emperor Theodosius was invested with the imperial purple; by the 20th of April, Gregory had formed a Church in Constantinople; in February, in the following year, Theodosius declared for the Creed of Nicæa; in November he restored the Churches of Constantinople to the Catholics. In the next May he convoked, in that city, the second General Council, which issued in the pacification of the Eastern Church, in the overthrow of the great heresy which troubled it, and (in a measure, and in prospect) in its union with the West. “Pretiosa in conspectu Domini mors sanctorum ejus.”

It was under such circumstances, when our Saint had passed through many trials, and done a great work, when he, a recluse hitherto, had all at once been preacher, confessor, metropolitan, president of a General Council, and now was come back again to Asia as plain Gregory—to be what he had been before, to meditate and to do penance, and to read, and to write poems, and to be silent as in former years, except that he was now lonely,*—his friend dead, his father dead, mother dead, brother Cæsarius, sister Gorgonia dead, and himself dead to this world, though still to live in the flesh for some eight dreary years,—in such a time and in such a place, at Cæsarea, the scene of Basil’s labours, he made the oration to which I have referred above, and invoked Basil’s glorified spirit; and his invocation ends thus:—“And when I depart hence, mayest thou receive me into thy tabernacles, so that, living together with one another, and beholding together more clearly and more perfectly the Holy and Blessed Trinity, whose vision we now receive in poor glimpses, we may there come to the end of all our desires, and receive the reward of the warfare which we have waged, which we have endured! To thee, then, these words from me; but me who will there be to praise, leaving life after thee? even should I do aught praiseworthy, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory for ever.—Amen.”

2

The circumstances which brought Gregory to Constantinople were the following:—It was now about forty years since the Church of Constantinople had last had the blessing of orthodox teaching and worship. Paul, who had been elected bishop at the beginning of this period, had been visited with four successive banishments from the Arian party, and at length with martyrdom. He had been superseded in his see, first by Eusebius, the leader of the Arians, who denied our Lord’s divinity; then by Macedonius, the head of those who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit; and then by Eudoxius, the Arianizer of the Gothic tribes. On the death of the last-mentioned, A.D. 370, the remnant of the Catholics elected for their bishop, Evagrius, who was immediately banished by the Emperor Valens; and, when they petitioned him to reverse his decision, eighty of their ecclesiastic who were the bearers of their complaints, were subjected to an atrocious punishment for their Christian zeal, being burned at sea in the ship in which they had embarked. In the year 379, the orthodox Theodosius succeeded to the empire of the East; but this event did not at once alter the fortunes of the Church in his metropolis. The body of the people, nay, the populace itself, and, what is stranger, numbers of the female population, were eagerly attached to Arianism, and menaced violence to any one who was bold enough to preach the true doctrine. Such was the internal state of the Church; in addition to which must be added, the attitude of its external enemies:—the Novatians, who, orthodox themselves in doctrine, yet possessed a schismatical episcopacy, and a number of places of worship in the city;—the Eunomians, professors of the Arian heresy in its most undisguised blasphemy, who also had established a bishop there;—and the Semi-Arians and Apollinarists, whose heretical sentiments have been referred to in my foregoing pages. This was the condition of Constantinople when the orthodox members of its Church, under the sanction and with the coöperation of the neighbouring bishops, invited Gregory, whose gifts, religious and intellectual, were well known to them, to preside over it, instead of the heretical Demophilus, whom Valens, three years before, had placed there.

The history of Gregory’s doings and fortunes at Constantinople may be told in a few words. A place of worship was prepared for him by the kindness of a relative. There he began to preach the true doctrine,—first, amid the contempt, then amid the rage and violence, of the Arian population. His congregation increased; he was stoned by the multitude, and brought before the civil authorities on the charge of creating a riot. At length, however, on Theodosius visiting the capital, he was recognized by him as bishop, and established in the temporalities of the see. However, upon the continued opposition of the people, and the vexatious combinations against him of his brother bishops, he resigned his see during the session of the second General Council, and retired to Asia Minor.

I do not intend to say more upon St. Gregory’s public career; but, before leaving the subject, I am tempted to make two reflections.

First, he was fifty years old when he was called to Constantinople; a consolatory thought for those who see their span of life crumbling away under their feet, and they apparently doing nothing. Gregory was nothing till he was almost an old man; had he died at Basil’s age, he would have done nothing. He seems to have been exactly the same age as Basil; but Basil had done his work and was taken away before Gregory had begun his.

The second reflection that suggests itself is this: in what a little time men move through the work which is, as it were, the end for which they are born, and which is to give a character to their names with posterity. They are known in history as the prime movers in this work, or as the instruments of that; as rulers, or politicians, or philosophers, or warriors; and when we examine dates, we often find that the exploits, or discoveries, or sway, which make them famous, lasted but a few years out of a long life, like plants that bloom once, and never again. Their ethical character, talents, acquirements, actions seem concentrated on a crisis, and give no sign of their existence as far as the world’s annals are concerned, whether before or after. Gregory lived sixty years; his ecclesiastical life was barely three.

3

When, turning from that ecclesiastical life, we view Gregory in his personal character, we have before us the picture of a man of warm affections, amiable disposition, and innocent life. As a son, full of piety, tenderness, and watchful solicitude; as a friend or companion, lively, cheerful, and open-hearted; overflowing with natural feelings, and easy in the expression of them; simple, good, humble, primitive. His aspirations were high, as became a saint, his life ascetic in the extreme, and his conscience still more sensitive of sin and infirmity. At the same time, he was subject to alternations of feeling; was deficient all along in strength of mind and self-control; and was harassed, even in his old age, by irritability, fear, and other passions, which one might think that even years, not to say self-discipline, would have brought into subjection. Such mere temptations and infirmities in no way interfere with his being a Saint, and, since they do not, it is consolatory to our weak hearts and feeble wills to find from the precedent of Gregory, that, being what we are, we nevertheless may be in God’s favour. These then are some of the conspicuous points in Gregory’s character; and the following extracts from his writings, in verse and prose, are intended in some measure to illustrate them.

At first sight, many persons may feel surprised at the rhetorical style of his sermons, or orations, as they are more fitly called: the following passage accounts for this characteristic of them. He considered he had gained at Athens, while yet in the world, a rare talent, the science of thought and speech; and next he considered that what had cost him so much, should not be renounced, but consecrated to religious uses.

“This I offer to God,” he says, “this I dedicate, which alone I have left myself, in which only I am rich. For all other things I have surrendered to the commandment and the Spirit; and I have exchanged for the all-precious pearl whatever I had; and I have become, or rather long to become, a great merchant, buying things great and imperishable with what is small and will certainly decay. Discourse alone I retain, as being the servant of the Word, nor should I, ever willingly neglect this possession; rather I honour and embrace and take more pleasure in it than in all other things in which the many take pleasure; and I make it my life’s companion, and good counsellor, and associate, and guide heavenward, and ready comrade. I have said to Wisdom, ‘Thou art my sister.’ With this I bridle my impetuous anger, with this I appease wasting envy, with this I lull to rest sorrow, the chain of the heart; with this I sober the flood of pleasure, with this I put a measure, not on friendship, but on dislike. This makes me temperate in good fortune, and high-souled in poverty; this encourages me to run with the prosperous traveller, to stretch a hand to the falling, to be weak with the weak, and to be merry with the strong. With this, home and foreign land are all one to me, and change of places, which are foreign to me equally, and not mine own. This makes me see the difference between two worlds, withdraws me from one, joins me to the other.”—Orat. 6. 6.

When he was ordained priest, he betook himself in haste to Pontus, and only after a time returned to Nazianzus. He thus speaks of this proceeding:—

“The chief cause was my surprise at the unexpected event; as they who are astounded by sudden noises, I did not retain my power of reflection, and therefore I offended against modesty, which I had cherished my whole time. Next, a certain love insinuated itself, of the moral beauty of quiet, and of retirement; for of this I had been enamoured from the beginning, more perhaps than any who have studied letters, and in the greatest and most severe of dangers, I had vowed to pursue it, nay, had even reached so far as to be on its threshold. Accordingly, I did not endure being tyrannized over, and being thrust into the midst of tumult, and dragged forcibly away from this mode of life, as if from some sacred asylum. For nothing seemed to me so great, as by closing up the senses, and being rid of flesh and world, and retiring upon one’s self, and touching nothing human, except when absolutely necessary, and conversing with one’s self and God, to live above things visible, and to bear within one the divine vision always clear, pure from the shifting impressions of earth,—a true mirror unsullied of God and the things of God, now and ever, adding light to light, the brighter to the dimmer, gathering even now in hope the blessedness of the world to come,—and to associate with Angels, while still on earth, leaving the earth and raised aloft by the spirit. Whoso of you is smitten with this love, knows what I say, and will be indulgent to my feeling at that time.”—Orat. 2.

He professes that he could not bring himself to make a great risk, and to venture ambitiously, but preferred to be safe and sure.

“Who is there, when he has not yet devoted himself and learned to receive God’s hidden wisdom in mystery, being as yet a babe, yet fed on milk, yet unnumbered in Israel, yet unenlisted in God’s army, yet unable to take up Christ’s Cross as a man, not yet an honoured member of Him at all, who would, in spite of this, submit with joy and readiness to be placed at the head of the fulness of Christ?* No one, if I am to be the counsellor; for this is the greatest of alarms, this the extremest of dangers, to every one who understands how great a thing it is to succeed, and how ruinous to fail. Let another sail for traffic, so I said, and cross the expanse of ocean, and keep constant company with winds and waves, to gain much, if so be, and to risk much. This may suit a man apt in sailing, apt in trafficking; but what I prefer is to remain on land, to plough a small glebe and a dear one, to pay distant compliments to lucre and the sea, and thus to live, as I may be able, with a small and scanty loaf, and to linger along a life safe and surgeless, not to hazard a vast and mighty danger for mighty gains. To a lofty mind, indeed, it is a penalty not to attempt great things, not to exercise its powers upon many persons, but to abide in what is small, as if lighting a small house with a great light, or covering a child’s body with a youth’s armour; but to the small it is safety to carry a small burden, nor, by undertaking things beyond his powers, to incur both ridicule and a risk; just as to build a tower becomes him only who has wherewith to finish.”—Orat. 2.

4

It is plain that the gentle and humble-minded Gregory was unequal to the government of the Church and province of Constantinople, which were as unworthy, as they were impatient, of him. Charges of his incompetency formed part of the ground on which a successful opposition was made to him in the second General Council. What notions, however, his enemies had of fitness, is plain from the following extract. The truth is, Gregory was in no sense what is called, rightly or wrongly, a party man; and while he was deficient, perhaps, in the sagacity, keenness, vigour, and decision for which a public man too often incurs the reproach of that name, he also had that kindness of heart, dispassionateness, and placability, which more justly avail to rescue a person from it. It was imputed to him that he was not severe enough with his fallen persecutors. He thus replies:—

“Consider what is charged against me. ‘so much time is passed,’ they say, ‘of your governing the Church, at the critical moment, with the emperor’s favour, which is of such importance. What symptom of the change is there? How many persecutors had we before! what misery did we not suffer! what insults, what threats, what exiles, what plunderings, what confiscations, what burnings of our clergy at sea, what temples profaned with blood of saints, and instead of temples made charnel-houses! What has followed? We have become stronger than our persecutors, and they have escaped!’ so it is. For me it is enough of vengeance upon our injurers to have the power of retaliation. But these objectors think otherwise; for they are very precise and righteous in the matter of reprisals, and therefore they expect the advantage of the opportunity. ‘What prefect,’ they ask, ‘has been punished? or populace brought to its senses? or what incendiaries? what fear of ourselves have we secured to us for the time to come?’ ”—Orat. 42.

Gregory had by far too little pomp and pretence to satisfy a luxurious and fastidious city. They wanted “a king like the nations;” a man who had a presence, who would figure and parade and rustle in silk, some Lord Mayor’s preacher or West-end divine, who could hold forth and lay down the law, and be what is thought dignified and grand; whereas they had no one but poor, dear, good Gregory, a monk of Nazianzus, a personage who, in spite of his acknowledged learning and eloquence, was but a child, had no knowledge of the world, no manners, no conversation, and no address; who was flurried and put out in high society, and who would have been a bad hand at a platform speech, and helpless in the attempt to keep a modern vestry in order.

“Perhaps, too,” he continues, “they may cast this slur upon me, as indeed they have, that I do not keep a good table, nor dress richly; and that there is a want of style when I go abroad, and a want of pomp when people address me. Certainly, I forgot that I had to rival consuls and prefects and illustrious commanders, who have more wealth than they know what to do with. If all this is heinous, it has slipped my mind; forgive me this wrong; choose a ruler instead of me, who will please the many; restore me to solitude, to rusticity, and to God, whom I shall please, though I be parsimonious.”

And shortly before,—

“This is my character: I do not concur in many points with the many; I cannot persuade myself to walk their pace; this may be rudeness and awkwardness, but still it is my character. What to others are pleasures, annoy me; and what I am pleased with, annoys others. Indeed, it would not surprise me, even were I put into confinement as a nuisance, and were I considered to be without common wits by the multitude, as is said to have happened to a Greek philosopher, whose good sense was accused of being derangement, because he made jest of all things, seeing that the serious objects of the many were really ridiculous; or if I were accounted full of new wine, as Christ’s disciples, from their speaking with tongues, the power of the Spirit being mistaken in them for excitement of mind.”—Ibid.

He has a similar passage, written, after his resignation, in verse, which must here be unworthily exhibited in prose.

“This good,” he says, “alone will be free and secure from restraint or capture,—a mind raised up to Christ. No more shall I be entertained at table by mortal prince, as heretofore; I, Gregory, to pack a few comforts into me, placed in the midst of them, bashful and speechless, not breathing freely, feasting like a slave. No magistrate shall punish me with a seat, either near him, or below him, giving its due place to a grovelling spirit. No more shall I clasp blood-stained hands, or take hold of beard, to gain some small favour. Nor, hurrying with a crowd to some sacred feast of birthday, burial, or marriage, shall I seize on all that I can, some things for my jaws, and some for attendants with their greedy palms, like Briareus’s; and then carrying myself off, a breathing grave, late in the evening, drag along homeward my ailing carcass, worn out, panting with satiety, yet hastening to another fat feast, before I have shaken off the former infliction.”—Carm. ii. 17.

One who is used to bread and water is overset by even a family dinner; much less could Gregory bear a city feast or conservative banquet.

5

On his return to Asia, first he had stayed for a time at Nazianzus; thence he went to Arianzus, the place of his birth. Here he passed the whole of Lent without speaking, with a view of gaining command over his tongue, in which, as in other respects, he painfully felt or fancied his deficiency. He writes the following notes to a friend:—“You ask what my silence means? it means measurement of speaking, and not speaking. For he who can do it in whole, will more easily do it in part. Besides, it allays anger, when it is not brought out into words, but is extinguished in itself.”—Ep. 96. Again: “I do not forbid your coming to me; though my tongue be still, my ears shall be gladly open to your conversation; since to hear what is fitting is not less precious than to speak it.”—97. And again: “I am silent in conversation, as learning to speak what I ought to speak; moreover, I am exercising myself in mastery of the passions. If this satisfies the inquirer, it is well; if not, at least silence brings this gain, that I have not to enter into explanations.”—98.

Gregory was now fifty-two or three; there is something remarkable in a man so advanced in life taking such vigorous measures to overcome himself.

The following passages from his poems allude to the same, or similar infirmities:—

I lost, O Lord, the use of yesterday;

Anger came on, and stole my heart away.

O may this morning’s light until the evening stay!

Again:

The serpent comes anew! I hold Thy feet.

Help, David! help, and strike thy harp-strings sweet!

Hence! choking spirit, hence! to thine own hell retreat.

Some temptation or other is alluded to in the following poems; though perhaps it is not fair to make a poet responsible, in his own person, for all he speaks as if from himself.

Here are his thoughts for the








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