Gregory of Nazianzus

On Vanity and Uncertainty of Life
and on the Common End of All

Translated by Victor Genke


I would wish to be either a long-winged dove or a swallow
that I could flee the life of mortals, or dwell
in a desert, sharing my hearth with animals (for they are
more faithful than humans), and live day by day,
without sorrow, penalties, worries. Only this would I have unlike animals:
the mind knowing Godhead and wandering in heaven,
which would always gather light for my peaceful manner of living.
Or, having climbed on a high hilltop,
I would proclaim, thundering, to all who inhabit the earth:
“Mortal men, race of the flow, you are nothing,
you live for death, puffed up with pride about useless things.
For how long, toying with false day-dreams,
Shall you remain their playthings as you fruitlessly roam the earth?
Consider everything with your mind  while travelling everywhere,
the same way as myself; for God has made me greatly experienced through
fortune and adversity — mind is borne above all.
That one was brave and stout, a boast of his companions,
walking proudly, with limbs fit for contests.
That one was handsome like the Morning-star, attracting
the eyes of all, a flower of spring among men. That one was renowned
in battles. Another one was like Ares in arms. That one excelled
in killing animals on the stadium, and stirring the might of  mountains
Still other cared about banquets and feasts,
earth, sea and air fed his belly.
Now, crooked and feeble (for everything has waned away),
Old age came, beauty flied away. The entrails are dead.
A small part of him is still alive among the mortals; but the most of him is already in Hades.
That one is full of various vain words,
the other only thinks of great tombs of noble men
or about the will that he recently wrote to his offspring.
The wisdom of that one is great in the cities,
he is on everybody’s lips. That one is rich beyond measure
and continues to augment his possessions in his imagination.
That one is proud because he has the scales of Justice, who sits on a high throne.
That one, wearing scarlet garments and having a band on his forehead,
has the strength of the earth and scorns heaven itself:
mortal, he arrogantly deems oneself immortal.
This is how it is now. Soon though, only dust will remain
and all shall look alike :
slaves and scepter-bearers, day laborers and those proud of their wealth.
Same darkness, same home. The only advantage that rich people would have
is that they are to be buried with a much louder funeral dirge
and leave their names on gravestones for grieving posterity.
Sooner or later mortals will share the same lot:
brittle bones, bald skulls that bare their teeth.
Arrogance has gone away. Poverty and labor remained. Unknown illness,
enmity, lawlessness, desire to have more, indomitable insolence,
everything has gone away with the dead, every sound has ceased
until the day when it will follow behind them, as they rise from the dead.
Seeing all this, obey to my counsels,
O my children (I can call you so because I breathe longer than you),
reject all this world, and everything which is restless in this world,
everything by which the earthly king cunningly entices you,
that hostile plunderer, pernicious slayer of men,
which is wealth, fame, throne, nobility, unreliable fortune.
And let us flee hastily unto heaven, where
many resplendent lights glow around the ineffable Triad.
The others are like stones for backgammon: here and there
they fall, taking pleasure in falling into the mud.
Or, with their eyes blinded by thick darkness,
they walk groping for the walls, one after another”.

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