While some may know St. Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390) as one of the Cappadocian Church Fathers of the fourth century, and only one of three saints given the title “the theologian” – the other two are St. John the Evangelist and St. Symeon the New Theologian – they most likely know little or nothing about his poetry.
Part of the reason for this perhaps is that, despite the Psalms and the Song of Solomon, many today think of theology and poetry the way Tertullian thought of Athens and Jerusalem, as polar opposites.
This may be due to a general disregard for modern poetry, or poetry in general, but another reason may be that many contemporary hymns are so unpoetic. Pope Benedict XVI may have had this in mind in speaking of Church Fathers who are poet-theologians, writers he presents to us so that we might emulate them, in his general audiences. With such church fathers we find, as Benedict states, “Theology, reflection on the faith, poetry, song, and praise of God go together.”
And, finally, public schools, and even many Catholic schools, as well as colleges and universities of all types, are so in the grips of an anti-Catholic, anti-Christian, and anti-Western ethos that they ignore the work of a writer of the quality of Gregory or misrepresent them.
While scripture is still treated with cursory respect, Christians come in for rough handling in our contemporary educational institutions. St. Gregory may be ignored, but St. John Chrysostom, for example, is included in the widely used college text The Norton Anthology of Western Literature, along with Tertullian, only to serve as an example of what the editors call the “deeply misogynistic” attitude of Christianity.
The Norton anthology is emblematic of the academic misinformation campaign against Christians, particularly Catholics. Sadly, Catholics and Christians bear some of the fault for this.
In his 2006 book Gregory of Nazianzus, Brian Daley, S.J. notes that Gregory was one of the first Christian public intellectuals and that he has been regarded since his time as one of the masters of classical literature. A rediscovery of the work of St. Gregory by Catholics and Christians, therefore, can help to break through the wall of secular misinformation.
Writers such as St. Gregory are a bedrock for our continued reflection and evangelization. Without them, our faith is poorer and our culture will continue to be held captive by the secular elites.
St. Gregory’s poetry, in particular, deserves to be rediscovered. He wrote masterfully of his own life and times in poetry, but he also left a number of poems based on Scripture specifically for catechetical purposes.
Brian Dunkle, S.J., whose book Poems on Scripture: St. Gregory of Nazianzus (2013 ) translates a number of the saint’s poems from Greek into clear and accessible English, comments that St. Gregory’s poetry “resides in a wider Christian cultural program that emphasized the catechetical end of all literature.”
Yes, poetry can be catechetical. Any form of literature that is truly Catholic can be catechetical. Gregory understood this, and so he made it his purpose to write literature that leads others to Christ.
St. Gregory wrote poems to help children and beginners learn the names of the approved books of Scripture, the plagues of Egypt, the Decalogue, the miracles of Elijah and Elisha, the names of the disciples, the genealogy of Christ, and Our Lord’s miracles. He also wrote poems of thanksgiving and lament.
In one of his poems he probes inwardly and concludes with a prayer: “Christ the Lord, you are my homeland, my strength, my wealth, my all./ Exchanging my troubles for life, may I be refreshed in you.”
St. Gregory, Dunkle tells us, “believed everyone, from the youngest child to his learned audiences to Gregory himself, the advanced Christian, should read the Gospels in this personal way.”
Yet St. Gregory knew, too, that one must be formed in order to read scripture in a way that remains true to the faith that we have received from Christ through the apostles. He also knew, as Dunkle shows, that the faithful must be in conversation with the world, and so he “incorporated Homer and Callimachus into his scriptural poems.”
There’s a lot of discussion these days about the Catholic writer and how to revive the Catholic literary and intellectual tradition, and so about how to refresh our culture. St. Gregory points the way, but we must overcome the resistance of those who think catechetics must always be presented in the form of propositions, arguments, and doctrine.