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POTW: A Fourth Century Church Father Shows Us the Way Into Poetry

[Editor’s Note: This is the first edition of a new weekly feature wherein we will be contemplating a single work of poetry or a portion of a poem. The tone of these posts will vary, ranging from academic to informal, but will always be driven by a deep and abiding love of poetry. We hope you enjoy and, please, join the conversation!]

What stood out to me initially when I first acquired St. Gregory’s Poems on Scripture was simply the beauty and goodness of the concept—writing important biblical passages as poetry. Here was a prominent theologian of the Church who chose to spend some of his time bringing scripture to life in the form of poetry. His reason for doing so was multifold, and had much to do with the classical education of his time. By the way, Gregory of Nazianzus (329-389), bishop, poet, preacher, saint, and renowned as “The Theologian,” had a profound and lasting influence on the history of Christian doctrine and spirituality (Dunkle 9).

Here are some of the key reasons St. Gregory offered as to why he wrote poetry. First, it allows him some relief from daily life. Second, it shows unbelievers that Christians can compose verse as accomplished as the ancient classics (Homer, Virgil, etc.), and third, it makes complicated theology more accessible to young, broad, or uneducated audiences (16). The poetic form, then, played an essential role in transmitting Christian theology to both children and new Christians.

Since I am the first of four writers to begin this project of a weekly reflection on a poem, this seemed like the most helpful place to begin—because we can see through St. Gregory that poetry can transmit truth in rather simple terms. Instead of viewing poetry as arcane, esoteric, and difficult, it might be best to approach it without fear—to see poetry as truth distilled. (I say this inspired by the Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks who said “Poetry is life distilled.”) Or we might think here of Dante, who said of poetry, “things that are true expressed in words that are beautiful.”

Beyond this, in St. Gregory’s work a couple of other fascinating aspects of poetry emerge. One, Gregory reveals in his poem, “On Matters of Measure,” that writing poetry forces him to choose his words carefully and control his language (21). These scriptural poems, like much of his verse, are models of verbal asceticism (21). Reading and meditating on poetry calls us to appreciate the value of words, the gravity of words—to choose them wisely and to use them well.

Two, it seems that Gregory incorporated precision and control in his poetry for the purpose of fostering memorization and understanding in his young readers—two hallmarks of classical teaching and learning. The technical features of this are found in his vocabulary, meter, and parallelism. His preference for a dactylic meter must have been to help students recite or possibly sing the verses.

And three, Gregory’s poems incorporate sprinkles of delicate linguistic markers that encourage familiarity with classical learning, so central to Gregory’s own formative education. He introduces his readers not only to the outlines of scripture, but also to certain arcane elements of classical literature (22). It is obvious that Gregory valued the role of classical poetry in his own life and viewed its treasures as essential to the formation of the young.

Let us close by reflecting on one of St. Gregory’s poems. This will be a little unique in that we are reflecting on a poem about the activity of reading scripture. As well, it must have served as a kind of petition for Gregory as he set out on the weighty endeavor of writing poems on scripture. Thus, it appears first in his book.

Reading scripture should be a meditative, holy activity—a truth overlooked or little understood, but here made rich and comprehensible by the power of verse.

Invocation Before the Reading of Scripture

Attend, O all-seeing Father of Christ, to these our petitions.
Be gracious to your servant’s evening song;
for I am one who sets his footstep on the sacred
paths, who knows God to be the only self-generate among the
and Christ to be the king who wards off ills from mortals.
He who once, with mercy on the dread race of suffering
willingly altered his form upon the Father’s offer.
Incorruptible God, he became a mortal, in order that by his
he might free all who toil from the chains of Tartarus.
Come now and tend to your servant’s soul
with inspired accounts from the book of holiness and purity.
For thus you might gaze on your servants of the truth
proclaiming true life with a voice as high as heaven.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus. Poems on Scripture. Trans. by Brian Dunkle, S.J. Popular Patristics Series. (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press) 2012.

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