Friday, November 17, 2017

St Gregory the Wonderworker

On the calendar of the Extraordinary Form, today is the feast of St Gregory the Wonderworker, bishop of Neo-Caesarea in Pontus, his native city, the modern Niksar in north-central Turkey. Born around 215 AD, he and his brother Athenodorus, who also later became a bishop, intended to study law at a famous school in Beirut. Their brother-in-law was appointed as an official of the Roman government of Palestine; the brothers therefore accompanied their sister to the city of Caesarea in that province. (Many cities in the East were called “Caesarea”; the one in Palestine is different from the city where St Basil the Great later served as bishop, also in Turkey.) At the time, the famous scholar Origen had taken up residence in Caesarea; on meeting and conversing with him, the two brothers gave up their plans to study law, and devoted themselves to learning from the great master.

A 14th century Greek icon of St Gregory the Wonderworker. (public domain image from Wikipedia.)
Among St Gregory’s surviving works is a Panegyric to Origen, preached upon the completion of his studies, before taking leave of his teacher and departing for home. In it, he states that Origen led and encouraged his students to virtue by personal example no less than by exhortation and teaching. Most importantly, he describes how he taught them to distinguish what was true and useful in pagan philosophy and poetry for knowledge of the true God from what was erroneous. A letter of Origen to Gregory also survives, in which he describes how the Christian may make use of what he learns from the pagan world.

“I am anxious that you should devote all the strength of your natural good parts to Christianity for your end; and in order to do this, I wish to ask you to extract from the philosophy of the Greeks what may serve as a course of study or a preparation for Christianity, and from geometry and astronomy what will serve to explain the sacred Scriptures, in order that all that the sons of the philosophers are wont to say about geometry and music, grammar, rhetoric, and astronomy, as fellow-helpers to philosophy, we may say about philosophy itself, in relation to Christianity.

Perhaps something of this kind is foreshadowed in what is written in Exodus from the mouth of God, that the children of Israel were commanded to ask from their neighbors, and those who dwelt with them, vessels of silver and gold, and raiment, in order that, by spoiling the Egyptians, they might have material for the preparation of the things which pertained to the service of God.”

Shortly after returning to Neo-Caesarea, St Gregory was appointed bishop of the tiny Christian community there, said to have only seventeen members at the time. His conversion of the city began with his very first sermon, preached in the house of an important fellow-citizen who hosted him, and followed immediately by numerous miraculous cures of the sick. This was the beginning of a long career of impressive miracles, many of which are recounted by St Basil the Great and his younger brother, St Gregory of Nyssa; by these, he converted so many people that on his deathbed, when he asked how many pagans were left in the city, the answer was “seventeen.” The most famous of these was the moving of a mountain in order to make a convenient space for the building of a church, which had become necessary with the rapid growth of the community, in fulfillment of the Lord’s words which are read in the Gospel for his feast day.

“Have the faith of God. Amen I say to you, that whosoever shall say to this mountain, ‘Be thou lifted up and cast into the sea’, and shall not hesitate in his heart, but believe, that whatsoever he saith shall be done, it shall be done unto him. Therefore I say unto you, all things, whatsoever you ask when ye pray, believe that you shall receive, and they shall come unto you.” (St Mark, 11, 22-24)

Ss Basil and Gregory of Nyssa learned what they knew of St Gregory the Wonderworker from one of his personal disciples, their grandmother, St Macrina the Elder. (St Macrina the Younger is their older sister.) It is through her and her spiritual father that much of Origen’s theological teaching was transmitted to the Cappadocian Fathers, and through them, enters the great tradition of Eastern theology. It is also recounted that before his episcopal consecration, Gregory went on a retreat in the wilderness, during which he was vouchsafed an apparition of the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist, who dictated a creed to him. The text of this survives, and the original manuscript of it was still preserved at Neocaesarea in St Basil’s day. The Canon for his feast in the Byzantine Rite refers to the story as follows: “Guided by God, as one who had sought for Him with longing, you obtained as your teachers Mary, the pure Mother of God, and the son of thunder, who taught you the splendor of the Trinity, as one who spoke from God.” Of particular interest is the last article of this short Creed, which speaks of a fully orthodox doctrine of the Trinity more than half a century before the Council of Nicea.

“There is a perfect Trinity, in glory and eternity and sovereignty, neither divided nor estranged. Wherefore there is nothing either created or in servitude in the Trinity; nor anything superinduced, as if at some former period it was non-existent, and at some later period it was introduced. And thus neither was the Son ever wanting to the Father, nor the Spirit to the Son; but without variation and without change, the same Trinity abideth ever.”

The Apparition of the Virgin Mary and St John to St Gregory the Wonderworker, by Giuseppe Cesari (1568-1640), more commonly known as the Cavaliere d’Arpino. From the Borghese Chapel of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, ca. 1612.
Prior to the Tridentine reform, there does not appear to be any devotion to St Gregory in the West. His feast appears, however, in the very first edition of the very first liturgical book of that reform, the Roman Breviary issued by St Pius V in 1568, two years before the Tridentine Missal; it is assigned to November 17, his day in the Byzantine Rite. This is a very unusual change for a reform which is in almost every respect extremely conservative, and which changed the calendar of Saints mostly by removing or downgrading those whose lives were thought to be historically unreliable.

This change, like several others, should be seen as part of the Church’s response to the novelties of the Protestant reformers.

Five hundred years after the 95 Theses, it is perhaps hard for us to properly grasp how radical a break with the whole of Christianity’s first millennium and a half was set in motion by Luther, and how much of the Church’s universally received tradition was lightly set aside as thing of little or no value. In regard to the study of philosophy, there have always been heretics and cranks who rejected it as worthless. One of the very first and most notable of these in antiquity was a Syrian disciple of St Justin Martyr called Tatian (ca. 120-180), who turned heretic, and wrote a very funny, but ultimately absurd, attack on the pagan philosophers and the whole intellectual tradition of the classical world. The vast bulk of Christian tradition, however, stands squarely with Origen in this regard, and with his disciple, St Gregory the Wonderworker, receiving philosophy as the “handmaid of theology”; this is the teaching which they then passed on to the Cappadocian Fathers, whose influence in the Byzantine East can never be overcalculated.

This tradition is fundamental to the writings of the great majority of the Fathers, including those in whom the reformers claimed to find justification for their teachings. And yet, after Augustine, Boethius, Anselm, Thomas and countless others, and particularly after the great scholastic conquest of the writings of Aristotle, Luther, with his usual lack of temperance and decorum, sought to cast philosophy, and indeed reason itself, out of the Church as “the Devil’s greatest whore… who ought to be trodden under foot and destroyed, she and her wisdom…” And likewise, “Aristotle is the godless bulwark of the papists. He is to theology what darkness is to light. His ethics is the worst enemy of grace. He is a rank philosopher, … the most artful corrupter of minds. If he had not lived in flesh and bones, I should not scruple to take him for a devil.” As for St. Thomas, “he never understood a chapter of the Gospel or Aristotle … In short, it is impossible to reform the Church if Scholastic theology and philosophy are not torn out by the roots with Canon Law.”

St Gregory the Wonderworker therefore serves as an example of the Church’s true tradition, which makes good use of philosophy as a necessary tool for the proper understanding of the Faith. He further witnesses, through his association with the Cappadocian Fathers, to the universality of that tradition in both East and West.
St Gregory the Wonderworker, from the Menologion of Basil II (11th century - public domain image from Wikipedia.)
In the post-Conciliar reform, St Gregory was removed from the general calendar as “not of truly universal importance,” a decision which does not speak particularly well of the reformers’ ability to determine which Saints were of truly universal importance. A similar mistake was made with St Catherine of Alexandria, whose life also bears witness to the importance of philosophy in the Christian intellectual tradition. This mistake was happily corrected by yet another Saint who also took a good deal of interest in philosophy, Pope John Paul II, and we may hope that a similar correction will someday take place with St Gregory.

In 1738, Pope Clement XII Corsini (1730-40) decided to add the feast of St Gertrude the Great, who died on November 17, ca. 1302, to the general calendar. Believing that a Saint who moved a mountain should not himself be moved, even by a Pope, her feast was assigned to the 15th. Almost two centuries later, however, Gertrude herself was moved to the 16th, to make way for another giant in the tradition of Christian philosophers, St Albert the Great.

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