St. Gregory the Theologian’s Middle Way:
Between Silence and Speech
by Hieromonk Gregory Hrynkiw, ASTH
The Asketerion along the Middle Way
St Basil of Caeserea’s Greater and Lesser Asketikons—rules written for communal or coenobitic monastic life—provide the backcloth for the Hermitage of the Three Holy Hierarchs’ typikon, or rules. According to Basil, to be fully human in Christ requires the “the steady hand of the steersman.” In the spiritual life, a constant temptation is to fall into the trap of imbalance. Imbalance gives the illusion of spiritual progress. Striving towards Christian maturity—“the measure of the stature the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4,13), however, requires balanced discernment.
For Basil the spiritual life is like sailing through a narrow passage in rough seas. The perfect Christian—Basil's ideal of the monk— needs the steady hand of the steersman to avoid the cliffs on either side. Any alteration in course must be made gently, balancing the boat, while keeping a vigilant eye upon the “Sun of righteousness”—Our Lord and Saviour.
Imbalance in the spiritual life stems from an imbalanced view of Christ. Some tend to see Him only as merciful, others merely as a judge. They turn Christ into what He is not—exclusively one or the other. He is compassionate to the poor, yet capable of a zeal that drives the moneychangers from the temple. Christ integrates a multitude of emotions and virtues, because He is fully human. Christian perfection is to embrace—or rather to be embraced by—the full maturity of Christ.
St Gregory of Nazianzus was a skilled steersman. His imitation of Christ embraced and held in balance: silence and speech, purification and illumination, the eremitical life and evangelization. His “middle way” is the spiritual path, or charism, of the Hermitage of the Three Holy Hierarchs.
Essential to this Gregorian path is the need of a quiet, yet spiritually and intellectually fecund space, with the occasional visit from like-minded friends. Thus, we are reminded of the dedicated Christians at Antioch, such as St John Chrysostom who while still living and working in the secular world spent long periods in Diodorus’s asketerion—a monastic and ascetical school in which Sacred Scripture and the Christian faith were learnt through liturgical prayer and contemplative study. We invite you, our dear readers, to join the saintly and intellectually vigorous company of Sts Basil, Gregory and John, as they lead us back to the origins of our faith within this quiet and fertile niche, which we affectionately call—The Asketerion.
Silence and Speech
While sailing from Alexandria to Athens in November of 348 at the age of nineteen, St Gregory of Nazianzus nearly perished in a violent storm just off the coast of Cyprus. At that moment, fearing death without baptism, he consecrated himself to Christ. Shortly after arriving in Athens, he was baptized.
While in Athens, Gregory initiated his studies together with Basil. It was then that he suffered nighttime visions, which imbued his soul with a “love of wisdom” and an ardent desire to lead the “philosophical life” of a Christian. During those nocturnal revelations, “two ladies appeared” to him, “in silver garments, virgins standing side by side, shining, both beautiful, and of the same age”—Chastity and Wisdom. They “kissed” and “cheered” him, and—“as a beloved son”—they lifted him up “on high through the bright, shining air,” placing him “as a light beside the immortal Trinity.”
In 358/9, after concluding a decade of scholarly pursuits, Gregory refused a funded position—one of only three—for teaching in Athens. He returned to his native Cappadocia and, retreating to his parents’ estates, taught rhetoric. On the feast of the Epiphany in 362, Gregory was “forcibly” ordained to the priesthood by his father to help secure the local church divided by schism. “Terribly shocked” by his father’s “noble tyranny,” he fled to Pontus for a period of “study and prayer”—once again—with his friend Basil.
Study and prayer were at the foundation of Gregory’s ascetical way. His middle path of Christian Philosophy was a combination of life in the desert—solitude, silence and prayer—and a life of the intellect and priestly ministry—contemplative study with an openness to serve Christ’s body through teaching, preaching and spiritual direction. Thus, having reflected upon the state of the church and his own priestly ministry, Gregory returned to Nazianzus for the Easter of 362 to fulfill his duties within the local church.
In 372, on the occasion of his episcopal installation, Gregory had to explain his hesitation—this time in taking up his bishopric. Once again, his middle way of consecrated life served as a hermeneutic:
It seemed to me to be best and least dangerous to take a middle course between desire [for solitude] and fear [of the episcopacy]…” “So, help me, each of you who can, and stretch out a hand to me who am pressed down and torn asunder by regret and enthusiasm. The one suggests flights, mountains and deserts, and calm of soul and body, and that the mind should retire into itself, and recall its powers from sensible things, in order to hold pure communion with God, and be clearly illumined by the flashing rays of the Spirit... The other wills that I should come forward, and bear fruit for the common good, and be helped by helping others; and publish the Divine light, and bring to God a people for His own possession, a holy nation, a royal priesthood, and His image cleansed in many souls. And this, because, as a park is better than and preferable to a tree, the whole heaven with its ornaments to a single star, and the body to a limb, so also, in the sight of God, is the reformation of a whole church preferable to the progress of a single soul: and, therefore, I ought not to look only on my own interest, but also on that of others. For Christ also likewise, when it was possible for him to abide in His own honour and deity, not only so far emptied Himself as to take the form of a slave, but also endured the cross, despising the shame that he might by His own sufferings destroy sin, and by death slay death. The former are the imaginings of desire, the latter the teachings of the Spirit. And I, standing midway between the desire and the Spirit, and not knowing to which of the two I should rather yield, will impart to you what seems to me the best and safest course (Oration 12.4).
The opening words of this same Oration describe the moment Gregory received his unique charism:
I opened my mouth, and drew in the Spirit, and I give myself and my all to the Spirit, my action and speech, my inaction and silence, only let Him hold me and guide me, and move both hand and mind and tongue whither it is right, and He wills: and restrain them as it is right and expedient. I am an instrument of God, a rational instrument, an instrument tuned and struck by that skillful artist, the Spirit. Yesterday His work in me was silence. I mused on abstinence from speech. Does He strike upon my mind today? My speech shall be heard, and I will muse on utterance. I am neither so talkative, as to desire to speak, when He is bent on silence; nor so reserved and ignorant as to set a watch before my lips when it is the time to speak: but I open and close my door at the will of that Mind and Word and Spirit, Who is One kindred Deity (Oration 12.1).
Gregory was moved throughout his entire lifetime by that Triune “Mind and Word and Spirit” along a middle path of “action and speech” and of “inaction and silence.” He understood his vocation to be as a rational instrument picked up and played or set down in silence according to Trinity’s good pleasure.
The Pastoral Care of Human Intelligence
In his Apostolic Exhortation, On the Consecrated Life, St John Paul II affirmed that: “The Holy Spirit, who wondrously fashions the variety of charisms, has given rise in our time to new expressions of consecrated life, which appear as a providential response to the new needs encountered by the Church today as she carries out her mission in the world.” The Hermitage of the Three Holy Hierarchs is a new expression of that venerable Gregorian way. It imitates the eremitical state, harmonizing both the contemplative (silence) and active (speech) aspects of religious life. As “an instrument of God, a rational instrument, an instrument tuned and struck by that skillful artist, the Spirit,” the Hermitage fosters the spiritual care of human intelligence, most especially through teaching, preaching and spiritual direction as exemplified in the lives of the Three Holy Hierarchs—Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian and John Chrysostom. St John Paul II defined the pastoral care of intelligence as “learning enlightened by faith;” while his successor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, further described this charism as an opening and broadening of the horizons of human intelligence to the mystery of the Trinity and as a witnessing to Christ through the coherency of one’s life: "The authentic Christian educator is therefore a witness who finds his model in Jesus Christ, the witness of the Father who said nothing about himself but spoke as the Father had taught him (cf. Jn 8: 28). This relationship with Christ and with the Father is… the fundamental condition for being effective educators in the faith."
In conclusion, The Asketerion—that quiet place of study and prayer—images both silence and speech; it is an icon written by the Hermitage as it lives out the middle way. In the next issue, we will explore Gregory’s middle path for the theologian, as an effective educator of the faith, who suffers both purification and illumination, while imitating Christ’s asceticism and philanthropy.
Gregory was moved throughout his entire lifetime by that Triune “Mind and Word and Spirit” along a middle path of “action and speech” and of “inaction and silence.” He understood his vocation to be as a rational instrument, picked up and played or set down in silence according to Trinity’s good pleasure.