Gregory of Nazianzus

Mark Ford

stretched out on the grass, and tried
to relax. A delightful breeze stirred his beard
but his ear-canals ached, and his tongue
felt bloated. While there is blood
in these veins, he mused, and I can hear
the murmur of leaves, and sparrows sing, I will not despair.
He half-dozed, and in a waking dream relived the despair

that had seized him during a stormy voyage from Alexandria to Athens.
   Death had tried
and tested him then. He’d shouted a prayer, but all he could hear
were the howling winds and surging seas, and the sailors cursing: ‘Your white-
   bearded
God seems a trifle deaf,’ one taunted; the blood
drained from his face, but he refused to hold his tongue.

‘And once in Athens,’ he reflected, startled awake by a falling pine cone, ‘how my
   tongue
loosened, and poured forth God’s word; even Basil despaired
of rivalling my eloquence … Basil … in Athens we lived together like blood-
brothers, sharing cramped lodgings, frugal meals, our innermost thoughts … I tried
so often, to write to you … I see you now, your hair oiled, your beard
neatly trimmed, leaning into me, as if my words were all you ever wished to hear …

‘Who lured me to Constantinople? that city of angels – and dogs! The people flocked
   to hear
the Holy Spirit move my lips, but many were swayed by the lies of that silver-tongued
viper, Maximus the Cynic, his glossy beard
all drenched with spittle and crocodile tears, his clothes rent in despair
at the hell fires being stoked for my followers. Brazen calumnies … yet when I tried
to refute them, the crowd hooted and hissed me, and hurled stones, drawing blood.’

As the rays of the sinking sun slanted through cypress and pine, Gregory’s blood
cooled. He thought he could hear
his houseboy shouting his name, and he tried
to respond, but couldn’t, for his tongue
seemed glued to his palate. He felt the slow encroachment of despair.
Something was crawling through his beard.

Gloomily he resumed his train of thought: ‘My poor beard
was not only matted, but stained a deep crimson with my own blood
as I cried to the Lord, not in despair,
but joyfully, believing he would hear
and gather me up, and that cherubim and seraphim would soon, and with one tongue,
be exalting me … now I fear I was tried,

tried and found wanting …’ Stroking his beard,
he observed the flickering tongue of a lizard, and waited for the blood
to return to his own. He could hear his houseboy’s cries receding, and in his voice a
   note of despair.