Leave it to a five-year-old to turn a World Heritage site into a playground.
The churches, monasteries and cave homes carved into the soft rock of the Cappadocian landscape were irresistible to my kids who filled our days there climbing, exploring and racing between fairy chimneys. For kids, play always takes precedence over reflection.
I understand. Even if the region of Cappadocia had no historical value of note, it would still be a wonder. It’s a historical site where roaming is far preferable to touring.
Some places are so singular in beauty they’re unforgettable. Cappadocia is one of those places.
One afternoon we stood on a curved ridge of white rock and watched a thunderstorm roll in across the plateau. We could feel the raindrops falling, but were tempted to stay despite the threatening lightening because there is no place on earth that looks quite like this. The contrast between the steely blue sky and the amber tones of the undulating ridges and cones in the valley was breathtaking.
Greek Orthodox families and monastic communities occupied this region from at least the fourth century, but there were almost certainly Christians living in the area much earlier. Luke’s account of Pentecost in Acts 2 notes that Jews from Cappadocia were present to hear Peter’s proclamation. The letter of 1 Peter is addressed to, among others, believers in Cappadocia.
On our most recent trip, I wanted to get to know the Christians who had shaped not just the culture and architecture of this place, but also those who had a hand in refining the doctrinal foundations of my faith. Rather than depending on guidebooks, I wanted to listen to the Cappadocian fathers speak in their own voices.
A beloved college professor taught me that reading well makes travel meaningful.
Gregory Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa
So when I went to Cappadocia, I went with the Cappadocians. I brought along books by Gregory of Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa. Both men were a force in the life of the church of the fourth century when the doctrine of the Trinity was being refined.
The Cappadoican fathers all argued persuasively that the Son and the Spirit are of one nature (homoousios) with God the Father. They all share in the divine nature equally—One God with three distinct persons (hypostases).
It wasn’t until the Second Ecumenical council in Constantinople in 381, with Gregory Nazianzus presiding, that the wording of the Nicene Creed, still the definitive expression of orthodox belief embraced by the worldwide Christian community, was framed.
Gregory Nazianzus is not just a theologian; for centuries he was known in the church as the theologian. Some of the wording of the creed, especially the additions regarding the Spirit, reflected Gregory’s Orations, many given in Istanbul in the years leading up to the council.
When I read On God and Christ, a collection of five of Gregory’s most beloved orations, I feel like I’m jumping into a dialogue midstream with the caveat that I can only hear one of side of the conversation. I’m constantly trying to get my bearings as Gregory responds systematically to the arguments made by his opponents.
Although Gregory studied Greek philosophy at Plato’s academy in Athens, Scripture drives his argument home. When he defends the full divinity and humanity of Christ, his rhetorical brilliance is on display, but it is his intimate knowledge of the Biblical text that is moving. To read his words, is to wish to have heard them spoken:
“As man Jesus was put to the test, but as God he came through victorious—yes, bids us be of good cheer, because he has conquered the world. He hungered—yet he fed thousands. …He thirsted—yet he exclaimed: ‘Whoever thirsts, let him come to me and drink.’ Indeed he promised that believers would become fountains. … He prays, yet he hears prayer. He weeps, yet he puts an end to weeping. … He is sold, and cheap was the price—thirty pieces of silver; yet he buys back the world at the mighty cost of his own blood. A sheep, he is led to slaughter—yet he shepherds Israel and now the whole world as well. He is weakened, wounded—yet he cures every disease and every weakness. He is brought up to the tree and nailed to it—yet by the tree of life he restores us. He surrenders his life, yet he has power to take it again. Yes, the veil is rent, for things of heaven are being revealed. He dies, but he vivifies and by death destroys death. He is buried, yet he rises again. If the first set of expressions starts you going astray, the second set takes your error away.”
These words encapsulate my faith, a faith that has held its center fast for two millennia.
A profound sense of continuity between my faith and the faith of early Christians makes me feel woven into the fabric of a community that transcends time and space.
Continuity and Community: Why I Read the Church Fathers
When I remember that these words were written in the fourth century by a believer distant from me historically, culturally and linguistically, a profound sense of continuity between my faith and the faith of early Christians makes me feel woven into the fabric of a community that transcends time and space.
Christopher Beeley, one of the most respected patristic scholars of our day, commenting on the resurgence of interest in the Cappodocians, suggests that strains in their thought speak directly to theological issues that are animating discussion today. “The Cappadocians properly understood,” Beeley says, “shed considerable light on the stagnated situation of modern pneumatology (the study of the Holy Spirit).”
Beeley is surely right. Reading Gregory of Nyssa and Nazianzus, I find intriguing thoughts not just on the doctrine of God, but also on free will, the process of maturing in faith, interpretation of scripture, and on the dynamic between knowing and not knowing, and embracing mystery.
Leafing through the pages of Gregory of Nyssa’s The Life of Moses, I glance over the passages I’ve marked. To me one of the most endearing attributes of Gregory’s writing is the degree to which he searches for meaning in every bit of the Biblical text—even passages that seem as if they could never have application outside their specific historical context are full of meaning for Gregory.
His understanding of Moses and the events of the Exodus is shaped by New Testament revelation. His synthetic approach to interpreting scripture reinforces the unity of the whole narrative and the essential connection between the two testaments—old and new.
Gregory searches for the inner meaning of the text. While the allegorical method of Biblical interpretation has fallen out of favor in the Protestant circles I run in, a charitable reading of Gregory’s writing yields beautiful insights. For instance, when he interprets the moment when Moses was sheltered within a rock on Sinai and God passes by only revealing his back, Gregory sees in the experience a foreshadowing of Jesus’s call to discipleship, “Come, follow me”:
So Moses, who eagerly seeks to behold God, is now taught how he can behold Him: to follow God wherever he might lead is to behold God. His passing by signifies his guiding the one who follows, for someone who does not know the way cannot complete his journey safely in any other way than by following behind his guide.”
Face to Face
Standing on a ridge overlooking Pigeon Valley in Cappadocia, I wonder how the daily experience of this extraordinary landscape might have shaped the meditations of the Cappadocians. There is something so evocative and mysterious about the contours of the valleys, the play of light over the ridges, the extreme contrasts between light and dark when moving from sunlight into the interior of the caves. And I think of Gregory of Nyssa’s description of Moses’s experience with God on Sinai:
“Such an experience seems to me to belong to the soul which loves what is beautiful. Hope always draws the soul from the beauty which is seen to what is beyond, always kindles the desire for the hidden through what is constantly perceived. Therefore, ardent lover of beauty, although receiving what is always visible as an image of what he desires, yet longs to be filled with the very stamp of the archetype. And the bold request which goes up the mountains of desire asks this: to enjoy Beauty not in mirrors and reflections, but face to face.”
More about the Cappadocian Fathers
Still interested? If you want to know more:
See Christopher Beeley’s excellent article “The Holy Spirit in the Cappadocians: Past and Present” in Modern Theology 26:1, January 2010. Beeley clarifies the finer distinctions between the theological approaches of the Cappadocian fathers and illuminates their relevance for modern theology. For a more in-depth read, see Beeley’s: Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity and the Knowledge of God: In Your Light We Shall See Light.
Women were an integral part of Cappadocian monastic communities. None was more respected than Macrina, Gregory of Nyssa’s older sister. For a nice introduction to this wise woman see See Michael Coleman’s post, “Who was Macrina”:
“Living both in solitude and in community, Macrina embodied the spiritual life of true philosophia—the Christian faith. Dedicated to work, prayer, contemplation and compassion, Macrina is extoled as a great philosopher and example to emulate. Her intellectual prowess, as described by Gregory, exceeds that of Socrates or Plato.”
Goreme National Park and the Rock Sites of Cappadocia have been identified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site worthy of preservation and protection.
Hiking through The Ihlara Valley, was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Don’t miss it.