Sunday, February 2, 2014

St Gregory ... Wonder-worker or Try-Harder?

by Norman Walford  

The history books have not been kind to St Gregory the Try-harder.
He has no Wikipedia entry. Until recently if you Googled him you wouldn’t have got a single hit, though happily that’s starting to change now. In the annals of church history he has become, strangely, something of a nonentity.
Why he has been neglected for so long is a bit of mystery. It may simply be that our Gregory never achieved anything in his life worthy of being recorded for posterity. That is after all the common fate of those who try to live the Christian life according to the try-harder philosophy (I wouldn’t want to dignify it by calling it a theology.) As I mentioned last week, there is a basic spiritual principle that the harder we try the less we achieve. Some people sadly go their whole lives and never figure this one out. Others—and I include myself in these—understand the principle pretty clearly but nonetheless find themselves falling in and out of the try-harder mentality on a regular basis. Perhaps Gregory was just one of these.
But I’m going to be charitable and look for an alternative explanation as to why Gregory the Try-harder has been so totally forgotten. And I wonder … these epithets can be notoriously fluid (‘the Try-harder’ is an epithet, by the way, for those who don’t know—and I had to look it up so don’t worry.)  So I’ve been wondering if our Gregory might have got mixed up with one of the many other Gregorys in history whose lives and spiritual accomplishments have been altogether better documented. And there have been quite a few. One of the first who springs to mind is St Gregory the Wonderworker. After all, that name would certainly sit a lot better on the name board outside the front of our church than what we have now. Could the two, at some point over the many centuries that have elapsed, have somehow got confused? Could the Wonderworker and the Try-harder in actual fact be one and the same man? I wonder…
St Gregory the Wonderworker was born a pagan in the year 213 AD—exactly 1800 years ago. He travelled to Palestine, and in Caesarea he was converted to Christianity through the ministry of the famous theologian Origen who was residing there. After this he returned to his hometown of Caesarea—Neo-Caesarea it’s called to distinguish it from the other one—in Pontus, now northern Turkey, where he was made bishop. It’s said that when he became a bishop there were just 17 Christians in his diocese (things were a good bit smaller in those days). When he died there were just 17 pagans. The rest had been converted. A Wonderworker indeed.
This Gregory is famous for many things, but perhaps the best-known is his role in the appointment of St Alexander the Charcoal-burner as Bishop of the nearby Diocese of Comana. The story goes that the church in Comana was looking for a new bishop and had called in Gregory to advise on the appointment. They drew up a short-list of candidates, all distinguished and highly regarded members of the community, and asked Gregory to interview them. Which he did—and rejected them all, one after another, as unsuitable. Dead end.
Gregory then commented that the bishop didn’t necessarily have to be drawn from the social elite of the city, but that a candidate from a more humble, perhaps even menial background could equally be considered. At this point, probably as a joke, someone cried out, “So, what about Alexander the charcoal-burner?”
Gregory took the mention of the name, even in jest, as being a potential divine Providence and asked to see the man. So Alexander was brought in—the filthiest, dirtiest man in the town, covered in charcoal dust from head to foot, as befitted his profession. Gregory saw through the dirt and the grime to the man of God underneath, and promptly consecrated him as the new Bishop of Comana.
St Alexander the Charcoal-burner turned out to be an outstanding bishop. He held the post for many years, and finally died a martyr’s death, probably during the great empire-wide persecution that took place during the reign of the Roman emperor Decius. It seems that he was burnt to death, as was common at that time, thus ending up as … dare I say it … charcoal. An appropriately symbolic end for such a humble man.
At this point some of you may be thinking, he's making it up. Actually not. The story is quite well attested. (Though in fairness perhaps it should be pointed out that Alexander was in fact a highly educated and spiritual man who had deliberately adopted the most humble and menial job he could find, that of charcoal-burner, as a conscious exercise in Christian humility. Gregory had begun the interviews by making the candidates take a vow to answer all questions with total truthfulness, so the truth of Alexander’s origins had quickly come out.)
Gregory's behaviour here illustrates a New Testament teaching that is so radical and revolutionary that it is systematically ignored not only by Pharisee churches the world over but by most non-Pharisee churches also (if such exist). That is, Paul's teaching that we should deliberately seek out the most menial and least talented members of our congregations and give them the greatest honour. I've never yet seen a church that took this teaching seriously to heart, and I probably never will. I often wonder though what would happen …
So is it time to paint over our sign and replace it with "Church of St Gregory the Wonderworker"? Sadly not. It's just the wrong Gregory. I wish I could convince myself otherwise, but I’ve had to conclude that the Wonderworker and the Try-harder were two separate individuals.
You see, our Gregory’s mind doesn’t work that way. Our Gregory is a pragmatist. And a politician. He sees the basis of successful ministry as being to keep as many people as possible happy, for as long as possible. And that is very hard work indeed. Which is one reason why he tries as hard as he does, and to so little avail.
What he has probably never fully understood in the course of his long and undistinguished ministry as that however hard you try, it’s never going to be quite enough. There’s always room to try harder so you never quite get there.
In his own way he’s probably happy. In his own way he may feel fulfilled. Hard work can do that for you. Even when the results are meagre. Even that meagerness can be turned round to look like a virtue.
What a pity he can’t look beneath the dust and the grime to see a few Alexanders hidden under it all. Then he might indeed be St Gregory the Wonderworker.  As it is, he is and will remain, our very own St Gregory the Try-harder.
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