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St. Gregory of Nazienzus

The Throne and the Mountain


Throughout his lifetime Gregory of Nazianzus struggled with the topic to which this work pertains. The solitude of the monastic life, a life of quiet contemplation of God, appealed to St. Gregory from his earliest days as a young man. This desire to be free of worldly affairs of which, despite his excellent rhetorical skills, he nevertheless wished to have no part was not to be achieved for some time. Concerns of secular life, the caring for his flock, and the ecclesiastical positioning (this last part of worldly pursuits he found especially repulsive), were to be forced upon him by his father, his parishioners, and even his friend Basil the Great. This disparity between what he longed for and the life he had to live lead to actions taken by St. Gregory that have been interpreted differently by various modern scholars.

It was Brooks Otis who described this struggle in St. Gregory's personal life as a tension between the "Mountain," the monastic life, and the "Throne," responsibilities of the ecclesiastical life. Otis' terms are used here (with credit to Otis as cited by Winslow below) in order to illustrate the relationship Gregory had with this world. Forsaking the glory of the Throne, its power not having appealed to him, for the joyful and daunting pursuit of theology in the serenity and solitude of the monastic Mountain, Gregory was repeatedly put in the place of the former role of ecclesiastical authority much to his dissatisfaction. His dissatisfaction and lifelong pursuit of the Mountain, the life of a contemplative theologian, leads us to the purpose of this work.


This reader also chooses these terms due to the appropriateness with which they seem to fit Gregory's situation. This situation has lead to differing opinions as to the motives behind Gregory's actions with regard to his reluctance to accept responsibility. As one discovers through reading accounts of the "Theologian's " life, his motives have been speculated at with quite a large difference in conclusions. It is this difference in conclusions as to why Gregory responded to the pressures in his life the way in which he did that I intend to look at in this writing.

The writings of such authors as Donald Winslow, F. Loofs, J. Gribomont, R. R. Ruether, and others, when compared with the above intention in mind may be examined discover which conclusions are more plausible than others are. Having said this, it must be admitted that this writer is not proposing that he is in any way better equipped to choose a 'correct' answer to the question of Gregory's actions. On the contrary, it would almost unforgivable to say that scholars of so many years experience reading and asking this question would be in the position of needing the input of an undergraduate student of the early church. Instead it is proposed that, as with any good student, differing views are considered, the most comfortable and most reasonable to the student may be clarified. As it is impossible to go back in time and ask St. Gregory directly (though he does provide a wealth of autobiographical information, see below), it is left to the each student to examine what evidence and viewpoints exist and come to his or her own conclusions. Such is the end of this work. To begin with, we shall look briefly at Gregory's life. The summary given below will perhaps be less extensive than the one given in the oral presentation of St. Gregory Nazianzen in class, yet adequate for an understanding of Gregory's life for the purpose of this work. It is assumed that the reader of this work has been introduced to Gregory, if not extensively then at least well enough for the reader to have knowledge of the context in which Gregory lived.


Gregory was born in Arianzus, located Cappadocia, around the year 329 C. E. His parents' names were Gregory, known as the Elder, and Nonna. Gregory the Elder held the Bishopric of Nazianzus at the time of his eldest son Gregory's birth (eldest of three), if not just before his birth. Earlier in Gregory the Elder was a heretic, a member of the sect of the Hypsistarii (worshipers of the Most High). Not much is known of his mother, except that she was a pious Christian. The younger Gregory went on to be educated by schools in Caesarea in Cappadocia, Palestine, Alexandria, and from there in Athens, becoming well known for his rhetorical skills. It was at this time, early in his educational travels, that he met and befriended Basil. Gregory returned to Nazianzus c.356/7, ten years after arriving in Athens. Although there is a question as to whether he was baptized at that time or earlier on the way home Athens aboard a ship, it is at least certain that he was baptized, and that his baptism had occurred not after this time. Upon arriving home (or before according to accounts and legend ) he resolved to strive toward the acetic life. He had a reputation for being an excellent rhetorician, a reputation that followed him from Athens, and a reputation that he would have just assumed not have.

Even though he wished to devote his life and talents to God in monasticism, his father forced ordination upon him, but not before St. Gregory fled to a retreat with Basil at the River Iris in Pontus (c.358). He returned home some two years later, embarrassed, and did as his father insisted. It was at this time that Gregory's literary works begin, writing two orations, and two invectives against Julian. This episode is an example of what is pointed to concerning the purpose of this work by our sources. As we continue, we soon find yet another point of hesitation in Gregory Nazianzen's life, the distancing from Basil.

In 372, Gregory was forced to take the title of Bishop of Sasima, in his words, an "exceptionally abominable and narrow little village. " His friend Basil, in order to achieve ends of his own, appointed him to this office. Gregory refused to take on the duties of his position, leaving eventually to return home at his aged father's side in 372 before ever performing the first function. His father's health was given as the reason for not staying, but the circumstances of his appointment together with his predisposition against public office makes this explanation questionable.

That his father was in bad health is true, Gregory's aid proving necessary. Upon the Elder's death in 374, Gregory stayed in Nazianzus until 375. At this time he fled once more, this time to Selucia, after it became clear that the neighboring Bishops were not going to appoint a replacement for his father. The Bishops were more content with keeping Gregory there than he was with staying. In the above accounts one sees multiple examples of Gregory apparently shirking responsibility. What happens next will prove to be an exception to this pattern.

In November of 379, there was a need for a Nicene voice in Constantinople, a voice of "orthodoxy" within a capital possessed by an Arian majority. With the death of Basil, Gregory was approached in order to promote Basil-like ideas among the Christians of the capital. He was reluctant at first, wishing to remain out of the public life and to contemplate God in peace. From what we've seen of Gregory up to this point in the story, it would not be unreasonable to expect that he would evade this call. Would it?

The fact is that Gregory did not avoid this responsibility. He traveled to Constantinople and set up a church in a rented house he nicknamed Anastasia. Gregory had been so successful in his work there, in no small part thanks to his rhetorical abilities that upon the Nicene Theodosius taking the Imperial seat the Nazianzene was carried from his rented house to the Cathedral Church of the Apostles in 381. That same year, Theodosius called for the Council of Constantinople. During this council Gregory's position as Bishop of Constantinople was challenged through political maneuvering on unprecedented grounds. Not desiring to remain in the public arena anyway, and even though he could have defended his office, Gregory stepped aside to retire in Arianzus, the place of his birth.

He had at last achieved the time for the practice of theology, as he understood it, the relentless pursuit of knowledge of the Trinity, as it was (is) revealed to us by God. In retirement he would not completely realize this goal. While in retirement he aids his kinsman Eulalius to the Bishopric of Nazianzus c.383, challenges Apollinarianism, and continues to write even in seclusion. Gregory Nazianzen died in Arianzus, c.389/90.

Best of Intentions

As this brief summary of the life of Gregory of Nazianzus illustrates, tension between whether to embrace the "Throne" or the "Mountain" (to perform the duties expected by those around him or to retire from worldly concerns in favor of the philosophic life) surfaced many times in his life. His forced ordination by his father, Basil's appointing him Bishop of Sasima, and the neighboring bishops hesitating to appoint a new Bishop of Nazianzus are all examples of a time when the purpose of Gregory's life became a matter of debate with himself (and others). Yet this tension was not only present in situations where Gregory fled to seclusion. He decided to return home to aid his father in 372 until the Elder's death, to go to Constantinople, to aid in Eulalius' effort for the Bishopric of Nazianzus (though one wonders if that wasn't a security move in order to prevent his own appointment out of retirement), and to continue his writing. Could his renouncement of this world not have been so complete?

R. R. Ruether suggests that Gregory was not so clearly committed to the acetic life. Ruether goes on in the same section to point out that Gregory's temperament did not tend to lead him to the extremes. Instead he tended to "...see the good in many ways of thought and the desire for the mean..." . This is in contrast to F. Loofs' comments. Loofs states that Nazianzen escaped his duties of office and complained at "unnecessary length" of "misconception and ingratitude. " Within Ruether's writings an alusion is made to Epistle 5 where a youthful Gregory does indeed complain . Looked at in the context of other letters to Basil and Basil responses, however, as Ruether does, shows this to be the work of lighter even jestful thirty-year-old.


It is the belief of this writer after reading different viewpoints of Gregory's motives for making the decisions he did that the nature of his dilemma may have been a clear idea of where his heart is yet lacking a clear idea of where his hand should be. He wished to serve God above all else. To do this he wanted to remove himself from worldly affairs (with which he included the priesthood) in order to find God. But he also knew that to do this would benefit only himself, not God. Therefor He struggled to reckon the two realms of the Throne and the Mountain. Perhaps this tension would never have afforded his life with any other outcome. There is an inherent irony in this. By living a life of unrest he predicted and proved that there can be no satisfaction, rest, or peace for one in this world. Only once one leaves the world can this be achieved, truly a point of fact to the acetic.


  • R. R. Ruether ,Gregory Of Nazianzus, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1969 pp.184

  • Jackson, S., The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Loofs, F. "Gregory Nazianzen," NY, Funk and Wagnalls Co., 1949, pg. 70-72

  • Donald Winslow's The Dynamics of Salvation: A Study of Gregory of Nazianzus, Cambridge, The Philadelphia Patristic Foundation, 1979, pp.21

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