Saint of the Day – 17 November – St Gregory Thaumaturgus “the Wonder-Worker” (c 213-c 270) Bishop, Confessor, Miracle-worker, Writer, Preacher – also known as Gregory of Neocaesarea, Gregory the Wonder-Worker, Theodorus – born in c 213 at Pontus, Asia Minor (in modern Turkey) as Theodorus and died in c 270 at Pontus, Asia Minor (in modern Turkey) of natural causes. Patronages – against earthquakes, desperate causes, floods, forgotten causes, impossible causes, lost causes.
Gregory was born around 213 to a wealthy pagan family in Neocaesarea. His surviving theological writings are in an incomplete state, thus this lack of knowledge partially obscures his personality, despite his historical importance and his memorial title Thaumaturgus meaning “the wonder-worker” in Latinised Greek, casts an air of legend about him. Nevertheless, the lives of few bishops of the third century are so well authenticated, the historical references to him permit a fairly detailed reconstruction of his work.
Originally he was known as Theodore (“gift of God”). He was introduced to the Christian religion at the age of fourteen, after the death of his father. He had a brother Athenodorus (who later also became a Bishop) and on the advice of one of their tutors, the young men were eager to study at the Berytus in Beirut, then one of the four or five famous schools in the Hellenic world. At this time, their brother-in-law was appointed assessor (legal counsel) to the Roman Governor of Palestine; the youths had therefore an occasion to act as an escort to their sister as far as Caesarea in Palestine. On arrival in that town, they learned that the celebrated scholar Origen, head of the Catechetical School of Alexandria, resided there. Curiosity led them to hear and converse with the master. Soon both youths forgot all about Beirut and Roman law and gave themselves up to the great Christian teacher, who gradually won them over to Christianity.
In his written oration on Origen, Gregory describes the method employed by that master to win the confidence and esteem of those he wished to convert, how he mingled a persuasive candour with outbursts of temper and theological argument put cleverly at once and unexpectedly. Persuasive skill rather than bare reasoning and evident sincerity and an ardent conviction, were the means Origen used to make converts. Gregory took up at first the study of philosophy, theology was afterwards added but his mind remained always inclined to philosophical study, so much so indeed, that in his youth he cherished strongly the hope of demonstrating that the Christian religion was the only true and good philosophy. For seven years he underwent the mental and moral discipline of Origen (231 to 238 or 239). There is no reason to believe that his studies were interrupted by the persecutions of Maximinus of Thrace, his alleged journey to Alexandria, at this time, may therefore be considered at least doubtful and probably never occurred.
Before leaving Palestine, Gregory delivered, in presence of Origen, a public farewell oration in which he returned thanks to the illustrious master he was leaving. This oration is valuable from many points of view. As a rhetorical exercise it exhibits the excellent training given by Origen and his skill in developing literary taste and the amount of adulation then permissible, towards a living person, in an assembly composed mostly of Christians and Christian in temper. It contains, moreover, much useful information concerning the youth of Gregory and his master’s method of teaching. A letter of Origen refers to the departure of the two brothers but it is not easy to determine whether it was written before or after the delivery of this oration. In it, Origen exhorts his pupils, to bring the intellectual treasures of the Greeks to the service of Christian philosophy and thus imitate the Jews, who employed the golden vessels of the Egyptians to adorn the Holy of Holies.
Gregory returned to Pontus with the intention of practising law. His plan, however, was again laid aside, for he was soon consecrated bishop of his native Caesarea by Phoedimus, Bishop of Amasea and metropolitan of Pontus. This fact illustrates in an interesting way the growth of the hierarchy in the primitive Church – the Christian community at Caesarea was very small, being only seventeen souls and yet it was given a bishop. Ancient canonical documents indicate that it was possible, for a community of even ten Christians, to have their own bishop. When Gregory was consecrated he was forty years old and he ruled his diocese for thirteen years.
Nothing definite is known about his methods but he must have shown much zeal in increasing the little flock with which he began his episcopal administration. An ancient source attests to his missionary zeal by recording a curious coincidence, Gregory began with only seventeen Christians but at his death there remained only seventeen pagans in the whole town of Caesarea. Presumably the many miracles which won for him the title of Thaumaturgus were performed during these years.
St Gregory of Nyssa (c 335-c 395) wrote the Life and Panegyric of Gregory drawing on family traditions and a knowledge of the neighbourhood, the facts for which, were supplied to the writer by his grandmother, St Macrina the Elder (c 270-c 340). He relates that before his episcopal consecration, Gregory retired from Neocaesarea into a solitude and was favoured by an apparition of the Blessed Virgin and John the Apostle and that the latter dictated to him a creed or formula of Christian faith, of which the autograph existed at Neocaesarea when the biography was being written. The creed itself is important for the history of Christian doctrine.
St Gregory of Nyssa describes at length the miracles that gained for the Bishop of Caesarea the title of Thaumaturgus. It is clear that Gregory’s influence must have been considerable and his miraculous power undoubted. It might have been expected that Gregory’s name would appear among those who took part in the First Council of Antioch against Paul of Samosata; probably he took part also in the second council held there, for the letter of that council is signed by a bishop named Theodore, which had been originally Gregory’s name. To attract the people to the festivals in honour of the martyrs, Gregory organised amusements that might appeal to pagans, who were accustomed to religious ceremonies that combined solemnity with pleasure and merrymaking.
When the persecution of Decius began in 250, the bishop counselled his faithful to depart and not expose themselves to trials perhaps too severe for their faith and none fell into apostasy. He himself retired to a desert and when he was pursued, was not seen by the soldiers. On a second attempt, they found him praying with his companion, the converted pagan priest, now a deacon – they had mistaken them the first time for trees. The captain of the soldiers was convinced this had been a miracle and became a Christian to join him. Some of his Christians were captured, among them Saint Troadus the martyr, who merited the grace of dying for the Faith. The persecution ended at the death of the emperor in 251.
It is believed that Saint Gregory died in the year 270, on 17 of November. The death of St Gregory took place in the seventieth year of his age and the 270th of the Christian Era.
Shortly before closing his eyes, he asked if there were yet some in the city who had not received holy baptism. ” Seventeen,” was the answer. The Saint, already in his agony, raised his eyes to heaven and said: ” Thanks and praise to God! When I took possession of my See, I found only seventeen Christians. May God preserve all in the true faith, and give to all infidels, in the whole world, the light of the Saviour’s divine Word!”
St Gregory’s remains were translated to Calabria, Italy, where many miracles once more occurred and continue so, as St Gregory intercedes for impossible causes.
Some of the many miraculous events in Gregory’s life:
Saint Gregory of Nyssa writes that the Wonder-Worker was the first person known to receive a vision of the Mother of God. The Virgin and Saint John the Baptist appeared to him in a vision and gave him what became a statement of doctrine on the Trinity.
Gregory had the power of healing by laying on of his hands. Often the healing was so powerful that the patient was cured of his illness, and became a fervent convert on the spot.
During the construction of a church for his growing flock, the builders ran into a problem with a huge buried boulder. Gregory ordered the rock to move out of the way of his church and it did.
In order to stop the River Lycus from its frequent and damaging floods, Gregory planted his staff at a safe point near the river bank. He then prayed that the river would never rise past the staff. The staff took root, grew into a large tree and the river never flooded past it again. This act led to his patronage against floods and flooding.
Two local pagans, hearing that Gregory was an easy target for obtaining money, decided to con the bishop. One lay beside the road where Gregory was travelling and pretended to be dead. The other stopped the bishop, pleaded poverty and asked for money to bury his dead friend. Gregory had no money with him, so he took off his cloak and threw it over the “dead” man, telling the “live” one to sell the cloak and use the funds. When Gregory had moved on, the “live” con-man found that his friend had died.
Two brothers in Gregory’s diocese had inherited a piece of land that contained a lake. Unable to decide how to divide the lake, the two settled on armed combat to settle the matter. On the night before the battle, Gregory prayed for a peaceful solution to the matter. The next morning the brothers found that the lake had dried up leaving easily dividable farm land. This is one of the miracles which led to his patronage of impossible causes.
When returning from the wilderness, Gregory had to seek shelter from a sudden and violent storm. The only structure nearby was a pagan temple. Gregory made the sign of the cross to purify the place, then spent the night there in prayer, waiting out the storm. The next morning, the pagan priest arrived to receive his morning oracles. The demons who had been masquerading as pagan gods advised him that they could not stay in the purified temple or near the holy man. The priest threatened to summon the anti–Christian authorities to arrest Gregory. The bishop wrote out a note reading “Gregory to Satan: Enter”. With this “permission slip” in hand, the pagan priest was able to summon his demons again.
The same pagan priest, realising that his gods unquestioningly obeyed Gregory’s single God, found the bishop and asked how it was done. Gregory taught the priest the truth of Christianity. Lacking faith, the priest asked for a sign of God’s power. Gregory ordered a large rock to move from one place to another – it did. The priest immediately abandoned his old life and eventually became a deacon under bishop Gregory. This ordering about of boulders, led to Gregory’s patronage against earthquakes.