Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus (whose sobriquet means ‘wonderworker’ or ‘miracle-worker’) lived from 213 to c.270, and was born in Neocaesarea, Asia Minor, in the area of Pontus, where he returned to after some time studying under Origen in Palestine, and was made bishop there (he is also known therefore as Saint Gregory of Neocaesarea) despite having originally intended to practise law; he acted as bishop there for another thirteen years after. Today is his feast day, and after a brief summary of some of the details of his life, I would like to take a look at a vision that he was given just before his episcopal consecration, during a time of solitude and prayer – it is a vision that is significant for a couple of reasons.
Saint Gregory was originally given the name of Theodore (a common name at the time, meaning ‘gift of God’) and was introduced to Christianity at the age of fourteen. His introduction and subsequent conversion were occasioned by a journey he had taken with his brother, shortly after the death of their father, to study law in Beirut. As part of this journey, they escorted their sister to Caesarea in Palestine, where her husband was legal counsel to the Roman governor there – upon arriving in Caesarea, Gregory and his brother encountered the teaching of Origen, and they gave up the study of law to study the mysteries of the Faith under him. Gregory wrote warmly later on of the way in which Origen used persuasive, personalist methods to win them over, not just reason alone.
Saint Gregory studied under Origen for five years, and continued the moral and spiritual disciplines he learned for seven in total, before returning to Pontus in 238, originally to take up the practise of law again, but later acting as a missionary there, converting great numbers to the Faith (reckoned in fact to be virtually the whole populace of the area). Not much is known about his apostolate during this time (which was carried out over the period of roughly thirty years) except that he won the people over during a period of wars, plague and persecution, and that many great miracles (later detailed by Saint Gregory of Nyssa) were attributed to him, which is why he was known as Gregory Thaumaturgus.
The incident which took place before his episcopal consecration though, has a significance beyond the undoubtedly great things that Gregory achieved in Pontus. The vision that he received is the first recorded instance of the Blessed Virgin Mary having appeared to someone in such a way, and is also an early testimony to Trinitarian doctrine. The vision is recounted in a biography of Saint Gregory of Nyssa (335 – 395), who based his writings on information handed down to him by his grandmother, Saint Macrina the Elder (c.270 – 340), who was a native of Neocaesarea and knew of Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus as a child, handing his teaching down to her children and grandchildren. The vision Saint Gregory of Nyssa recounts in the biography is as follows:
‘Once again [Gregory] was terrified and turned his face away, unable to bear its sight. The vision was especially amazing since the night was gloomy, for it resembled something like a light illuminated by another light. Since he could not look upon this spectacle, he heard from those who appeared to him speaking in detail about what he was seeking. Not only was he revered with regard to true knowledge of faith but recognized the names of each man who appeared when they called each other by their respective names. It is claimed that this vision of a female form told [Gregory] that the evangelist John was exhorted to manifest the mystery of truth to a young man, saying that she was chosen to be the mother of the Lord whom she cherished. He also said that this fitting vision had vanished again from his sight. He was immediately ordered to write down this divine revelation and later proclaim it in the church. In this way it became for others a divinely given legacy through which the people might repulse any evil of heresy.’
The words of the Trinitarian revelation are then given, but the translation that is given in the passage from which I have quoted above is a little clunky and lacks the sense of grandeur which I think is requisite for such an important confession of faith, which is so clearly consonant with the early creeds and other more refined doctrinal statements later on. Here are the words revealed to Saint Gregory by Saint John the Evangelist, from another source and in another, more dignified translation:
‘There is one God, the Father of the living Word, who is His subsistent Wisdom and Power and Eternal Image: perfect Begetter of the perfect Begotten, Father of the only-begotten Son.
There is one Lord, Only of the Only, God of God, Image and Likeness of Deity, Efficient Word, Wisdom comprehensive of the constitution of all things, and Power formative of the whole creation, true Son of true Father, Invisible of Invisible, and Incorruptible of Incorruptible, and Immortal of Immortal and Eternal of Eternal.
And there is One Holy Spirit, having His subsistence from God, and being made manifest by the Son, to wit to men: Image of the Son, Perfect Image of the Perfect; Life, the Cause of the living; Holy Fount; Sanctity, the Supplier, or Leader, of Sanctification; in whom is manifested God the Father, who is above all and in all, and God the Son, who is through all.
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.’
Whether the revelation given to Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus was exactly as described by Saint Gregory of Nyssa is a question for academics, but the latter at least seemed sure that what had been passed down to him by his grandmother was, in terms of its essential content, sure and trustworthy. We have here then a very early, as well as very robust and comprehensive, articulation of Trinitarian doctrine that precedes the official formulations of such at the Ecumenical Councils; moreover, in the case of Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus, this revelation was transmitted by the Beloved Disciple and vouchsafed by the Blessed Mother of God, giving us at the very least sound testimony to the extent to which these figures were associated with orthodox Catholic Faith.
The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, and Saint John the Evangelist, have been long associated, symbolically, with the Church. They were and are seen as icons of the Mystical Body insofar as John, representative of the true believer, is commended to be the spiritual son of the Mother of Our Lord (c.f.; John 19:25-27), thus likening Mary’s motherhood to the motherhood of the Church – as we all accept Christ as Our Lord, we, like Saint John, also accept Mary as our Mother; similarly, also following Saint John, we accept the Church as our Mother. Thus the appearance of the Blessed Virgin and Saint John to Gregory, with reference to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity – the very heart of orthodoxy – cannot be accidental. The Faith and the Church are one, just as Our Blessed Lady is symbol of the Church and also the paradigm of perfect faith.