Gregory closes out his oration considering the things that drove him from ministry and those that drew him back to it. He makes a tour of biblical texts that make this line of work scary–think of Paul’s litany of his suffering and various prophets’ declarations of God’s judgment on faulty shepherds and priests. The things that drew him back to serve after he ran away include the mutual love between him and the people he was called to serve, his debt to his parents and especially his father whom he was to assist in ministry, and the story of Jonah, whose flight and return he contemplates in some detail.
It is his reasons for avoiding ministry that need a little consideration. What he describes lives on in diluted form in many who find their way to seminary and ordination today. I cannot count the people who have told me the same story of how they came to see themselves called to ministry: God was calling them for years and years, and they ran the other way, and finally they gave in. I think it has become kind of a trope–it is the story we expect to hear, and we don’t feel we have the right call story unless we ran far and fast the other direction before finally saying “yes,” presumably to God’s profound relief.
That sounds a bit like Jonah’s story. However, it is not what Gregory thinks we’ll see in a closer look at Jonah. It is certainly not how Gregory portrays his own story–even if it is Gregory and others in his era whose experience shaped today’s trope.
Gregory avoided ministry because of a sense of the unbearable importance of the work and his own lack of proper spiritual qualification. Do correct me if I’m wrong, but when people today talk about having run from ministry today it usually sounds like they just felt they had better things to do–they chose other work they liked, or which was more lucrative, or perhaps they had family responsibilities. A couple generations back ministry was a vocation that people looked to with admiration, but today it is less respected, more marginal.
Some do also talk about a sense of unworthiness, and that is a word Gregory uses. I suspect that many who run away for this reason are thinking about some particular sin, some guilt from the past that makes it impossible for God to love or call or use them; or perhaps they think they lack some necessary gift. These are issues for pastoral care–we need the Gospel for forgiveness, and we need a serious immersion in biblical teaching to know that God always seems to call the unlikely people to the work that matters most. An immersion in history might help as well, since Gregory of Nazianzus was clearly had a personality better suited to the monastic isolation he loved, but God used him as a bishop and one of the formative theologians for Christianity as a whole.
But as I said, Gregory says he fled from the call to serve as a pastor for reasons of the weighty nature of the work and his own perceived unworthiness. I’ve written a bit about Gregory’s sense of why this work is difficult, a physician of souls being an almost impossible task: the patients are infinitely varied and they actively hide their ailments from treatment. What about his own unworthiness?
Gregory is not talking of worthiness as personally gained sinless discipleship that makes us good enough to serve, nor of any particular gift. He is writing about having integrity in a life with God where we are growing closer to God: “…we can only be worthy of the sanctuary after we have become worthy of the Church…” That is, we have to be real Christians, living lives appropriate to the life of the church, if we are to be considered for the specific work of ministry–which for Gregory is here summarized in the priest’s work in the liturgy, in the sanctuary.
Gregory knows that before he could serve he must, with integrity, be offering himself as a living sacrifice–that is what Paul says God accepts. So he considers all his parts: he held back because his “hands needed to be consecrated by holy works,” his eyes aimed with right perspective to creation and creator, his ears opened to hear God’s instructions, his mouth open to speak the mysteries and teachings of the faith, his feet set on the rock and aimed in the right direction, and so on. How could he start as a minister “before all my members had become instruments of righteousness, and all mortality had been put off, and swallowed up of life, and had yielded to the Spirit?”
Woven in and out of the oration is a sense of how one does all this. It is not about small scale moral improvement. The process has to do with contemplation: turning his heart and mind to gaze upon God. It is about knowing God. It is the lack of this that he thinks disqualifies people for the work.
Who is the man, whose heart has never been made to burn…with the pure words of God…who has not…attained the mind of Christ…and become able to enrich others, comparing spiritual things with spiritual?
Who is the man who has never beheld, as our duty is to behold it, the fair beauty of the Lord, nor has visited His temple, or rather, become the temple of God, and the habitation of Christ in the Spirit?
Who is the man who has never, by experience and contemplation, traversed the entire series of the titles and powers, both those more lofty ones which originally were His, and those more lowly ones which He later assumed for our sake…and has never yet held communion with, nor been made partaker of, the Word, in any of the real relations signified by each of these names he bears?
Who, in fine, is the man who, although he has never applied himself to, nor learnt to speak, the hidden wisdom of God in a mystery, and although a babe…yet will joyfully and eagerly accept his appointment as head of the fulness of Christ? No one, if he will listen to my judgment and accept my advice!
In the world of Protestant Christianity, we tend to be dismissive of contemplation. We relegate it to the long ago Middle Ages, or to isolated monastic life that we assume (wrongly) is a denial of service to humanity. Gregory, called to ministry by a forced and unwanted ordination, ran back to Pontus to immerse himself in monastic isolation and contemplation. It was this whole-self long-term investment of his life in pursuit of God through prayer that was the necessary preparation and qualification for ministry. He came back, and the work he did, on a foundation of humility and integrity, mattered.
I don’t think you will find him claiming to have reached perfection. I do think that he lived in the real process of transformation, growing closer to God and therefore made over, even in small increments, in the renewed image of God. He certainly gained wisdom and insights that all Christians have benefited from since–whether they know his name or not.