The Catholic Church annually celebrates the feast days of St. Basil of Caesarea and St. Gregory of Nazianzus – January 1 in the East and January 2 in the West. Their story is below.
But first let me say that Blessed John Paul II (b. 1920, pope, 1978-2005) often described the Greek language East (the Orthodox Churches and the Eastern Churches of the Catholic Church) and the Latin language Catholic West (the Latin Church) as “two lungs” of the Christian Faith. This phrase appeared in his 1988 document Euntes in mundumon the 1,000 anniversary of the conversion of Russia); and in his 1995 Apostolic Letter “May They Be One” (Ut Unum Sint), paragraph 54. Of the “Doctors of the Church,” four are Greek and Gregory and Basil are two of the four.
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Gregory (called “St. Gregory of Nazianzus the Younger” – his father was “St. Gregory of Nazianzus the Elder”) was born in the town of Arianzus, near Nazianzus, in the province of Cappadocia – in what is now Turkey, about 330 A.D. He was educated first in Caesarea, the capital and main city of Cappadocia. Basil (called “St. Basil the Great” or “St. Basil of Caesarea”) was born in Neocaesarea also about 330 and was a fellow student of Gregory’s in Caesarea, Cappadocia.
Both boys left Caesarea to continue their studies and ended up together in Athens, Greece. Basil went from Caesarea, Cappadocia, to Constantinople, and then to Athens. Gregory went to Palestine, to a town in that province also called Caesarea. His parents then sent Gregory to Alexandria, Egypt, and later Athens.
The trip by ship from Alexandria to Athens was a big turning point in Gregory’s life. He was in a shipwreck. He was still a catechumen in the Catholic Faith, but during the shipwreck he vowed to dedicate the rest of his life to God. In a poem written near the end of his life, he described this event in a passage that is famous among historians for its details about an ancient shipwreck experience. The following passage is from the poem, Concerning His Own Life in St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Three Poems (trans. D.M. Meehan, O.S.B.) (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic Univ. of America Press, 1987), ll. 125-209, pp. 80-83. (Please see the note at the end regarding copyright information.)
[T]he moment I chose to leave [Alexandria] was altogether outside the sailing season, before the sea had settled down...I put off and was making straight for Greece in the lee of Cyprus, when the ship was struck by a squall. Everything became a great blackness: land, sea, air, the sky all darkened. Thunderclaps resounded amid flashes of lightning, and the sheets quivered as the sails were filled. The mainmast bent: the rudder had no effect as the blasts tore it forcibly from one’s hands. Mountainous seas swamped the vessel. A confused clamor arose, cries of sailors, helmsmen, officers, passengers, all calling with one voice upon Christ, even the people who formerly knew not God. (Fear is an opportune teacher.) The most pitiable of all our misfortunes, however, was that the boat was without [drinking] water. The moment she began to roll, the cistern which carried the precious treasure of water was smashed and scattered to the depths. The question then was whether thirst, or the sea, or the winds should make an end of us. But God sent speedy deliverance from it all. Phoenician merchants suddenly made their appearance. They were in fear themselves; but when they realized from our entreaties how desperate our plight was, they made our craft fast by using grappling hooks and main strength, for they were very strong. They rescued us indeed from a state of practical [virtual] shipwreck, like fish gasping out of native element, or a lamp flickering out when all the oil is gone.
The sea continued angry, however, and we were harassed for several days. Driven hither and thither we had no notion of where we were sailing, and we could see no hope of safety from God. All of us feared a common death, but more terrifying for me was the hidden death. Those murderous waters were keeping me away from the purifying waters [of baptism] which divinize us. That was my lament and my misfortune, and my cries overcame the pounding of the waves. Stretched miserable and prone I lay with garments rent...[We were] voyagers on a common sea of woe.
However You, my Christ, were even then a mighty savior, just as now You are my deliverer from the storms of life. There was no shred of solid hope, no island, no mainland, no mountain top, no beacon light, no guiding star for sailors: nothing large or small that one could see.
[He promised and challenged God:] If I escape a double danger [shipwreck and death before baptism] I shall live for You; if I am abandoned, you will lose a worshipper...
...The clash of winds abated, the sea grew calm, the ship sailed straight on course...We passed Rhodes and a little later struck sail in the harbor of Aegina..
Gregory was studying rhetoric in Athens when he learned that Basil would be coming for additional studies in the same city.
Many years later, on the third anniversary of Basil’s death, Gregory delivered a funeral oration in which he described the years the two spent in Athens. His oration is included in the book St. Gregory Nazianzen & St. Ambrose, Funeral Orations (trans. Leo P. McCauley, S.J., et al.), vol. 22 of Fathers of the Church (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1953, 1981).
In this sermon, Gregory recalled that he did two things for Basil. First, new students were subjected to a custom of being “rallied” (or what we today would call “hazed”).
The practice, to those who are ignorant of it, seems fearful and brutal. [The new student] is led in procession through the marketplace to the bath” where [the current students] “...raise great shouts and leap up and down, as though in a frenzy...At the same time they pound at the doors and frighten the youth with the uproar...
At that time, not only was I myself unwilling to subject my friend...to shame, reverencing as I did his gravity of character and his maturity of judgment, but I also persuaded the other youths who did not know him to share my sentiments. For he was already respected by most of them, since his renown had preceded him. The result was that he was almost the only newcomer to escape the general rule, a distinction beyond that generally accorded to new students.
This was the prelude to our friendship. This was the spark that enkindled our union. It was thus that we were struck with mutual love.
(Funeral Orations, paras. 16-17, pp. 40-41.)
The second thing Gregory did was as follows: Some of their childhood friends now at the school asked Basil questions. At first, Gregory joined in the discussion hoping to show, along with these friends, that Athens had something to offer even a great scholar like Basil. But then Gregory realized that they were trying to bait Basil, plying him with questions of a contentious rather than a reasonable character, and strove to vanquish him at the first onset, both because they had long recognized the genius of Basil and because they could not endure the honor being shown him at this time...I changed my position immediately and, putting my ship about and ranging myself on his side, I made his victory decisive. He was at once quite pleased with what had happened...This was the second step in our friendship, no longer a spark but a flame that burned bright and high. (Funeral Orations, para. 17, pp. 41-42.)
This problem with classmates, however, led Basil to think that Athens was not what he had hoped; “he called Athens an empty happiness.” (Funeral Orations, para. 18, p. 43.) Gregory successfully consoled Basil and persuaded him to stay.
“[A]s time went on, we mutually avowed our affection for each other, and that philosophy was the object of our zeal. Thenceforth we were all in all to each other, sharing the same roof, the same table, the same sentiments, our eyes fixed on one goal, as our mutual affection grew ever warmer and stronger...” (Funeral Orations, para. 19, p. 43.)
Gregory said that he had gone to Athens for schooling. Athens was “the home of eloquence...truly golden, patroness of all that is excellent...And in my search for learning I found happiness.” Yet, he found in Athens something wonderful for which he had not even come; he had found Basil. (Funeral Orations, para. 14, p. 38.)
He describes their relationship still more:
Oh, how can I evoke such memories without tears! We were impelled by equal hopes in the pursuit of learning...But envy was absent...There was a contest between us, not as to who should have first place for himself, but how he could yield it to the other, for each of us regarded the glory of the other as his own. We seemed to have a single soul animating two bodies...For companions we consorted, not with the most dissolute but with the most modest, not with the most quarrelsome but with the most peaceable...We knew that it was easier to be contaminated by vice than to communicate virtue...
Two ways were familiar to us: the first and more precious leading us to our sacred buildings and the masters there; the second and the one of less account, to our secular teachers. All else -- festivals, spectacles, assemblies, and banquets -- we left to those with a taste for such things...Different men have different names, derived from their ancestors or their own pursuits and deeds. Our great concern, our great name, was to be Christians and be called Christians...
...Athens is harmful, in general, to the things of the soul...It abounds in the evil riches of idols...and it is difficult not to be led astray...But in our case no harm resulted, as our minds were protected by an impenetrable armor. On the contrary, to speak paradoxically, our own experience there confirmed us in the Faith. For we recognized their deceit and fraudulence...(Funeral Orations, paras. 20-21, pp. 44-45.)
Gregory and Basil were so good, so excellent, and so close that they were regarded as “a famous pair” (Funeral Orations, para. 22, p. 46), “a team...that was celebrated throughout Greece” (Poem, Concerning His Own Life, l. 227, p. 83).
After several years of these studies and a deepening friendship, both men decided it was time to leave schooling. Gregory was “already...practically in [his] 30th year.” (Poem, Concerning His Own Life, l. 239, p. 84.) They had a common purpose in leaving -- to pursue a life with God. Blessed John Henry Newman, who wrote biographies of both men, has added that it appears that the reason Basil became anxious to get on with his life was the death of his younger brother Naucratius. J. H. Newman, Historical Sketches, vol. 2 (London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 2d ed. 1857) (ch. 1-4 re: Gregory & Basil), p. 22.
Gregory described in his funeral oration for Basil and the poem he wrote late in life that their companions, classmates, and even some teachers surrounded them and did and said everything they could to persuade them to remain in Athens. “They held on to me tightly, insisting that they would not let me go for any reason.” (Poem, Concerning His Own Life, l. 254, p. 84.) Gregory understood how much affection these people had for them.
Gregory says Basil was strong like an “oak tree” but he was weak. Under this pressure, Gregory changed his mind and stayed. Basil was so strong that he even left after realizing that Gregory was going to remain.
To Gregory, Basil’s departure “was like cutting a body in two parts, with the resulting death of both, or like the parting of two oxen that have shared the same manger and yoke, bellowing piteously for each other in distress at their separation.” (Funeral Orations, para. 24, pp. 48-9.) Not being able to bear Basil’s loss any more, Gregory left a short time later; “almost by stealth I slipped away.” (Poem, Concerning His Own Life, l. 264, p. 84.)
It’s unclear from the sources whether Basil returned home and then toured the principal monasteries of the Eastern Roman Empire in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria or toured the monasteries before coming home. It’s also unclear at what point in these travels Basil’s older sister, St. Macrina, upbraided him for his pride and persuaded him to seek the life of a religious.
What is clear is that Basil gave up thoughts of a career in government. In 375 he wrote a letter that discussed this tour that occurred in the year 357:
“After a long time spent in vanity, and almost the whole of my youth vanishing in the idle toil of studying that wisdom which God has made folly, when at length, roused as from a deep sleep, I gazed upon the marvelous light of Gospel truth...much did I...pray that guidance would be [given] to me...I earnestly desired to find some brother [in the Faith] who had made the same choice, and who might make the passage with me over the brief waves of this life...” (Newman, pp. 20-21 (Letter to Eustathius, Bishop of Sebaste).)
Basil realized that Gregory, who by now had left Athens, would not be joining him in a monastic setting just yet because Gregory had chosen to care for his aging parents in Nazianzus. So, for the first year back from his tour, Basil decided to locate in the area of Tibernia to be near Gregory.
Despite his shipwreck vow some years earlier, Gregory had postponed baptism during his student days in Athens -- apparently so he could be baptized by his father. His father did baptize him at this time.
Gregory’s family and friends asked Gregory to reconsider his decision to join a monastery (with Basil) and, instead, teach rhetoric in Nazianzus. Gregory did so for a time.
Basil didn’t like Tibernia and its weather. Basil relocated in 358 for a location called Annesi on the river Iris. (This location was across the river from a women’s monastery but it is unclear whether Basil or the women came first.) Basil wrote a long letter to Gregory glowing about the natural beauty of the place, a place without wild beasts but with plenty of animals and fish for food. He concluded, “Does it not strike you what a foolish mistake I was near making when I was eager to change this spot for your Tibernia, the very pit of the whole earth?” (Newman, pp. 59-60.)
Gregory sent a letter back making fun of each and every part of Basil’s description -- perhaps because, if Basil’s description were true, then he would feel badly if he didn’t join Basil.
Gregory later paid Basil a long visit. By this time, other men had joined Basil. During Gregory’s visit, he helped Basil develop rules for monastery living, rules that continue to be the rules for monastic life in the Eastern Churches. Together the young men worked on the editing of an anthology of the sayings of a theologian from the previous century, Origen of Alexandria (A.D. 184/185-253/254). Gregory even persuaded Basil’s brother, Gregory (later called “St. Gregory of Nyssa”) to join them and work with them on this project.
(Gregory (of Nyssa) was about five years younger than the other two. Although he had been ordained a lector (a minor order), he started a career teaching rhetoric and had married a woman named Theosebeia. Gregory (of Nazianzus) admired both him and Theosebeia. By this time, Theosebeia had died.)
Upon his return to Nazianzus from Annesi, Gregory (of Nazianzus) wrote Basil a letter. This one described what a pit Annesi was: no roof, no door, rain, gardens without herbs, “a sad and hungry banquet” that consisted of food Basil had dared to call “bread” and “broth,” food that tasted like paste. He says that, thankfully, Basil’s mother (St. Emmelia) had come and rescued Gregory (presumably to her monastery across the river).He concluded that, if Basil were annoyed by this description, Basil should think of Gregory who was annoyed by the reality of it all! (Newman, pp. 60-61.)
Apparently, this letter hurt Basil’s feelings. Gregory wrote him again:
What I wrote before, concerning your Pontic [adjective for the noun Pontus] abode, was in jest, not in earnest; but now I write very much in earnest...Who shall restore me to those psalmodies [singing of Psalms], and vigils, and departures to God through prayer...or to that union of brethren, in nature and soul...or to that rivalry in virtue and sharpening of heart, which we consigned to written decrees and canons [referring to the rules of monastic life]? Or in that loving study of divine oracles, and the light we found in them, with the guidance of the [Holy] Spirit? Or, to speak of lesser and lower things, to the bodily labors of the day, the wood-drawing and the stone-hewing, the planting and the draining...For you are my breath, more than the air, and so far only do I live, as I am in your company, either present, or, if absent, by your image. (Newman, pp. 61-62.)
Priests & Bishops
The reason Gregory had left Basil after his visit to Basil’s monastery was related to Gregory’s family. Gregory’s father, born about 276 and now in his 80’s, had become ill and had asked his son to return home.
During Christmastime, 362, Gregory was ordained a priest. Immediately Gregory thought he’d made a mistake and fled. He had wanted monastic life, a middle way between being a hermit and living a secular life, not the life of a secular priest. (Poem, Concerning His Own Life, l. 310, p. 86.) A few months later, by Easter, 363, he returned. For the next 10 years Gregory helped his father in both church and family business matters. He felt very frustrated that his family obligations would not allow him to join Basil:
As time went on...I could not be with him...Reverence for my parents, the care of their old age, and successive misfortunes separated me from him. This was not good, perhaps, nor fair, but at any rate they kept me from him. I ask myself [now after all these years] whether this was not the cause of all the inconsistency and difficulty which has befallen me in my life...(Funeral Orations, para. 25, p. 49.)
Yet, Basil ended up on the same path as Gregory. After some seven years at his monastery, Basil left it and was ordained a priest in 365. (Basil’s brother, Peter, later St. Peter, succeeded him as abbot. Some 15 years later, in 380, Peter was made bishop of Sebaste, Armenia. He participated in the Council of Constantinople in 381. Peter died about 391.) Four years later, in 369, Gregory’s brother Caesarius died. In 370, Basil’s mother died. That spring, Gregory and Gregory’s father influenced the decision to make Basil a bishop of Caesarea, Cappadocia.
Basil devoted himself both to charitable works and to the defense of the Faith. Specifically, he defended the Nicene Creed that had been adopted in the Ecumenical Council held in Nicea 45 years earlier in 325.
As bishop, Basil created a small town filled with homes, a church, an inn for travelers, workshops, and a hospital.
In 371, Basil persuaded his brother, Gregory, to be the bishop of Nyssa, a town within the jurisdiction of Basil, in lower Armenia.
In 372, Basil asked his friend Gregory also to be a bishop in a town within Basil’s jurisdiction. This became a dispute they were never able to bridge.
The dispute concerned the episcopal territory of Basil. The emperor, Valens, an Arian heretic, wanted to undercut Basil who had dared to remain faithful to the Nicene Creed. The emperor divided the province of Cappadocia into two provinces causing a conflict between the boundaries of the government’s provinces and of the Church’s dioceses. The Arian bishop, Anthimus, wanted the Church dioceses to mimic the government boundaries which would enlarge his territory.
Gregory offered to help Basil in Basil’s problems with the Arians, but Gregory didn’t expect Basil’s solution.
Basil decided to create a new diocese within his jurisdiction -- and wanted to make Gregory bishop of it. Gregory reluctantly agreed and was consecrated -- but then never took up residence in his diocese. The diocese was populated mostly by Arians and Arian bishop Anthimus said he would prevent Gregory from serving as bishop by violence. Gregory and Basil were never as close again. In his autobiographical poem written late in life, Gregory wrote frankly:
[The diocese for which I was appointed by Basil is] without water or vegetation, not quite civilized, a thoroughly deplorable and cramped little village. There’s dust all around the place, the din of wagons, laments, groans, tax officials, implements of torture...The population consists of casuals and vagrants. Such was my church of Sasima. [Basil]...was so magnanimous as to make me incumbent here...[On top of everything else wrong with the place,] that particular see couldn’t be held without bloodshed. It was a no man’s land between two rival bishops....The pretext was souls; but in fact, of course it was desire for control, control (I hesitate to say it) of taxes and contributions...(Poem, Concerning His Own Life, ll. 440-463, pp. 89-90.)
It is as though Gregory were saying in today’s words: “Thanks, but no thanks” or “Thanks a lot, friend, who needs it!” or “With friends like Basil, who needs enemies?!”
Gregory continues in his autobiographical poem with a description of the problem he faced with his dear friend Basil:
In the name of God, where did the proper course of action lie for me? Acquiescence? Patient endurance of assaults by scoundrels? Blows at all hours? Suffocation by dust? Not to have a place to rest my aging bones? Always being driven forcibly from my house? Not having bread to break with a guest? Penniless, with a penniless flock...Offer this sort of thing, if you please, to people with more wisdom than I can muster, and request another sort of generosity from me.
Athens, our studies together, our sharing of roof and hearth, the single spirit animating two people, the marvel of Greece, the pledge that we made that we would cast aside absolutely the world and live the [monastic] life for God, placing our words in the service of the one wide Word! This was the outcome of it all! ...(Poem, Concerning His Own Life, ll. 464-482, p. 90.)
Gregory became, in his words, “a fugitive,” refusing to go to the town. At first, Gregory’s father tried to persuade him to be an active bishop of Sasima, then, when the father’s health declined, the father, a bishop, asked Gregory to become his auxiliary bishop. (Poem, Concerning His Own Life, ll. 464-482, p. 91.)
For Basil’s part, we should understand the situation of the Christian Church. It was beset by various new heresies: Arianism, Apollarianism, Semi-Arians, Macedonians, Sabellians, a conflict between Meletius and Paulinus (both Catholic but one was a former Arian) for the patriarchy of Antioch, and more. In a letter to Bishop (later St.) Anthanasius of Alexandria, Basil wrote:
I suppose there is no one who feels such pain at the present condition...as your Grace; comparing, as you naturally must, the present with the past, and considering the difference between the two, and the certainty there is, if the evil proceeds at its present pace, that in a short time the Churches [of the various cities] will altogether lose their existing constitution. I have often thought to myself, ‘if the corruption of the Churches seems so sad to me, what must be the feelings of one who has witnessed their former stability and unanimity in the Faith...’Newman, p. 40 (Letter 66).)
Alas, Anthanasius could not reconcile Paulinus and Meletius because he had already sided with one of the two. (Id.)
In further desperation, Basil wrote bishops in Latin-speaking Italy and Gaul, far removed from the Greek-speaking Eastern Empire:
The danger is not confined to one Church; not two or three only have fallen in with this heavy tempest...[A man] whose blasphemies are the more shocking is more eligible for [the position of bishop]. Priestly gravity has perished; there are none left to feed the Lord’s flock with knowledge; ambitious men are ever spending, in purposes of self-indulgence and bribery, possessions which they hold in trust for the poor...The accurate observance of the canons is no more; there is no restraint upon sin. Unbelievers laugh at what they see, and the weak are unsettled; faith is doubtful, ignorance is poured over their souls....Sacred things are profaned; those of the laity who are sound in faith avoid the places of worship, as schools of impiety, and raise their hands in solitude with groans and tears to the Lord in heaven.
While, then, any Christians seem yet to be standing, hasten to us, our own brothers; yes, we beseech you. Stretch out your hands, and raise us from our knees, suffer not the half of the world to be swallowed up by error; nor faith to be extinguished in the countries from where it first shone forth...(Newman, pp. 43-44 (Letter 92).)
Basil complained that, after 13 years of the Arian heresy,
. . .the people have left their houses of prayer, and assemble in deserts; a pitiable sight, women and children, old men and others infirm, wretchedly faring in the open air amid the most profuse rains, and snowstorms, and winds, and frost of winter; and again in summer under a scorching sun. (Newman, p. 46 (Letter 342).) In another letter, he wrote:
There is a cry in the city, a cry in the country, in the roads, in the deserts...Joy and spiritual cheerfulness are no more; our feasts are turned into mourning; our houses of prayer are shut up; our altars deprived of the spiritual worship. No longer are there Christians assembling, teachers presiding, saving instructions, celebrations, hymns by night, or that blessed exultation of souls, which arises from communion and fellowship of spiritual gifts.” [What’s more, he complained, it is the Arians who baptize, care for travelers and the sick, celebrate the Liturgy, creating a bond with people that] in a little while, even though liberty be granted to us [Christians of the Nicene Creed], no hope will remain that they [the people], who are encompassed by so lasting a deceit, should be brought back again to the acknowledgement of the truth.” (Newman, pp. 46-7 (Letter 243).)
Isn’t it clear that Basil needed help -- from whomever he could get it? Basil saw Gregory as someone who wouldn’t fight while Gregory saw Basil as too ambitious. (Newman, p. 72.)
Until Gregory’s father’s death in 374, Gregory stayed in Nazianzus. Despite the rupture between Gregory and Basil, Basil attended Gregory’s father’s funeral. (Gregory’s father had always supported making Basil a bishop. (Funeral Orations, p. 154.)) Gregory, his father’s auxiliary bishop, did not want to succeed his father. Because nothing was done, Gregory up and left the area to force the issue and went to a monastery, staying there for three to five years (around 374-378). During this time, Gregory’s sister, Gorgonia, died (375). One commentator said Gregory had an apparent mental breakdown.
Not only didn’t Gregory help Basil, but by 376, people in the West were doubting Basil’s faith! Moreover, in the same year, Basil lost the services of Basil’s brother, Gregory, bishop of Nyssa because he had been removed by a synod controlled by Arian heretics for neglecting financial matters. The charges were false, but admittedly, Gregory of Nyssa was not very good at administration. Fortunately, in the last half of 378, after Emperor Valens’ death, Gregory of Nyssa he was restored to his office.
In these same last months of 378, the government assured religious freedom to worship to all Christian churches. Gregory of Nazianus agreed to become bishop for the small minority of Catholics (those adhering to the Nicene Creed) in the major see of Constantinople.
Shortly after Gregory arrived in Constantinople, Basil died -- in Caesarea on January 1, 379. Basil was about age 50. People were moved to tears by his passing; there was so much emotion that, as Gregory observed, some people died during the funeral procession. (Funeral Orations, para. 80, pp. 96-7.)
Here is Father (later Cardinal and Blessed) Newman’s summary of what occurred with Gregory after Basil’s death:
Gregory [had] disliked the routine intercourse of society; he disliked ecclesiastical business, he disliked publicity, he disliked strife...[H]e loved the independence of solitude, the tranquility of private life...He admired, yet he playfully satirized, Basil’s lofty thoughts and heroic efforts. Yet, upon Basil’s death, Basil’s spirit, as it were, came into him; and within four months of [Basil’s death, Gregory] had become a preacher of the Catholic faith in an heretical metropolis, had formed a congregation, had set apart a place for orthodox worship, and had been stoned by the populace.(Newman, p. 76.)
In the next couple years, what Basil had striven for and had failed to achieve came to be. Basil’s brother, Gregory of Nyssa, continued Basil’s work in uniting orthodox Christians. He was a leader in the Synod of Antioch held later in 379 and the Synod of Constantinople I of 381. Between synods, in 380, he succeeded his brother as bishop of Caesarea, Cappadocia.
(Churches built into the mountains of Cappadocia)
For his part, Gregory of Nazianzus preached eloquently and successfully on the Trinity against the Arian heresy. In 380 new Emperor Theodosius recognized Gregory as Patriarch of Constantinople. There was violence in the streets over this decision.
The council of 381 was presided over by the patriarch of Antioch, Meletius. The council recognized what the emperor had done and elected and installed Gregory as patriarch of Constantinople. Shortly afterwards, while the council was still in session, Meletius died. Gregory assumed the post of president of the council.
The participants in the council were in hot debate over who should become patriarch of Antioch to replace Meletius. Added to this confusion, some bishops from Egypt and Macedonia, arriving late for the council, argued that the election of Gregory was illegal because it was contrary to a decree of the Council of Nicaea that forbade a bishop from being transferred (the technical term was “translated”) from one diocese to another. In order to avoid schism, Gregory chose to resign as patriarch of Constantinople.
About his confusing and demanding times in Constantinople, Gregory later wrote: “All of you succeeded in defeating one man who wanted to be defeated” and who wanted to leave evil men for solitude. (Poem, Concerning His Own Life, l. 1929, p. 130.)
Gregory returned to Nazianzus. For Lent, he gave up speaking! (Newman, p. 86.)
In his autobiographical poem, Gregory used some harsh words to describe his relationship with Basil. At the same time that he wrote the poem, he delivered a funeral oration on the third anniversary of Basil’s death, January 1, 382. These are the two items from which I have extensively quoted. Gregory obviously had mixed feelings about Basil. He intensely disliked what Basil had asked him to do, yet he loved and admired him. Here’s some of what he said in the funeral oration:
...Who was so pleasant in social contact, as I myself know from long experience with him? Who was so delightful in his storytelling, so penetrating in his wit, so gentle in repartee?...
But what are these things compared to his excellence in eloquence and the power of his teaching, by which he endeared himself to the ends of the earth? We are still engaged at the foot of the mountain, far from the summit...For I think that if there ever has been, or will be, a trumpet penetrating the immensity of space, or a voice of God encompassing the world, or a universal earthquake resulting from some new wonder or miracle, his voice and mind were as all of these, leaving all men as far behind and below him as we surpass irrational creatures. (Funeral Orations, paras. 64-5, p. 83.)
...Whenever I take [Basil’s book] Hexameron in my hands and savor its words, I am put in the presence of the Creator...When I chance upon his controversial works, I see...fire...by which wicked and criminal tongues are reduced to ashes...When I turn to his works treating of the [Holy] Spirit, I find the God I possess....(Funeral Orations, para. 67, p. 85.)
I, Gregory, who am half dead and cut in two, now that our great union is sundered, drag out a painful and weary life, a natural result of my separation from him. I know not what my end shall be, now that I no longer have his guidance...My purpose is not so much...to sketch the manner of his life and propose a common model of virtue for all time, a salutary example for all the churches and all souls..., but rather to counsel you who have been thoroughly imbued with his teaching, eyes fixed on him, as though he were seeing you, and you him, that you may be perfected by the Spirit.
Come here, now, and stand about me...each giving or requiring an account of some virtue of his.
Let those of you who have supreme authority consider the lawgiver;
you public officials, the founder of the city;
you of the people, his orderliness;
you men of letters, the teacher;
you virgins, the groom;
you married people, the counselor;
you hermits, him who gave you wings;
you [monks] the judge;
you who are simple and sincere, your guide;
you contemplatives, the theologian;
you exuberant souls, the bridle;
you unfortunate, your consolation;
you elderly, your staff;
you youth, your preceptor;
you in poverty, your relief...
It seems to me also that widows should praise their protector,
orphans their father,
the poor the lover of the poor,
strangers their host,
brothers the lover of brothers,
the sick their physician...
the healthy the guardian of their health...
This is my tribute to you, Basil, from a tongue that was once most sweet to you, and from him who was your peer in rank and age...[I]f it is far below your worth and falls far short of your expectations, what must I feel, worn out with age and disease and longing for you? Yet, when a man does what he can, it is pleasing to God...(Funeral Orations, paras. 81-2, pp. 97-8.)
Gregory served as bishop until 383. Then he moved to his birthplace, Arianzus, writing and giving spiritual direction until he died in 390 about age 60. His relics are at St. Peter’s Basilica.
Basil’s brother, Gregory of Nyssa, died in 394 about age 59.
(St. Gregory of Nyssa)
Among these three Cappadocian bishops, Gregory of Nyssa is considered the philosopher and mystic; he wrote less than the other three, but perhaps more deeply. An ecumenical council in 787 pronounced him “Father of the Fathers” of the Church. Basil is regarded as the administrator, and Gregory of Nazianzus (for his sermons on the Trinity) “the Divine” or “the Theologian.” Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom are the Three Hierarchs of the Eastern Church. These three, with St. Athanasius, are the four Greek Doctors of the Church. Basil also bears the name of “Doctor of the Holy Spirit.”
Works That Survive
Most of the works that survive from St. Gregory of Nazianzus (the Younger) were written during the last nine years of his life. They include:
· 44 “orations” including: five preached in Constantinople on the Nicene Creed and the Trinity, funeral orations for his brother St. Caesarius, his sister St. Gorgonia, their father St. Gregory of Nazianzus the Elder, and, as we have seen, Basil; and his Final Farewell;
· over 200 letters, many published as requested by his sister Gorgonia’s grandson, Nicobulus; and
· poetry, including his autobigraphy, Carmen de vita sua (“The Song of My Life”).
The works that survive from St. Basil the Great of Caesarea include:
· early works such as: the anthology of Origen’s works, the Philocalia; the Moralia, verses of the
· New Testament, with two prefaces; and a work on the pagan classics;
· Contra Eunomium (“Against Eunomium” an Arian who had written a book) and De Spiritu Sancto (“On the Holy Spirit”);
· some 366 letters;
· a number of homilies; and
· the rules for monastic life, the Asceticon.
Basil promoted the singing of psalms that later became part of the Divine Office.
St. Gregory of Nyssa’s writings include:
· a book like Basil’s responding to Eunomium’s book;
· a number of other books against the Arian views on the Holy Spirit;
· a book against the heresy of Apollinaris concerning Christ;
· the biography of his sister, St. Macrina;
· a made-up dialogue with his dying sister Macrina on the Resurrection;
· a large number of works on Scripture;
· a work on virginity; (you’ll recall that Gregory of Nyssa was a widower);
· sermons; and letters.
(Holy Hierarchs St Basil, St John Chrysostom, St Gregory the Theologian)
Reflections, Including Ones Especially for Younger Readers
1. Newman says this about Gregory of Nazianzus the Younger:
[H]e was fifty years old when he was called to Constantinople; a consolatory thought for those who see their span of life crumbling away under their feet, and they apparently doing nothing. [This comment is filled with irony since Newman himself felt the same way later in his life -- despite his accomplishments.] Gregory was nothing till he was almost an old man; had he died at Basil’s age, he would have done nothing...Basil had done his work and was taken away before Gregory had begun his.
[I]n what a little time [do] men move through the work which is, as it were, the end for which they are born, and which is to give a character to their names with posterity...Gregory lived sixty years; his ecclesiastical life was barely three.(Newman, pp. 79-80.)
[Gregory] had passed through many trials, and done a great work, when he, a recluse hitherto, had all at once been preacher, confessor, metropolitan [patriarch], president of a General Council, and now was come back again to Asia as plain Gregory -- to be what he had been before, to meditate and to do penance, and to read, and to write poems, and to be silent as in former years, except that he was now lonely, -- his friend dead, his father dead, his mother dead, brother Caesarius, sister Gorgonia dead, and himself dead to this world, though still to live in the flesh or some eight dreary years...(Newman, p. 77.)
What do you think of this? Can we say that God is never finished with anyone at any age? Can we say that, no matter what age we are, we can begin again, in the words of the closing of the Mass, “to love and serve the Lord”?
2. What do you think of the dispute between Basil and Gregory? Can even saints find themselves apart on some things and find it difficult, even impossible, to bridge the gap?
3. There were many people whose lives were touched by these men and their relatives even if their names were not mentioned here, like the classmates in the various cities, the women of the monastery, the people who cried when Basil died, those who listened to their sermons or received their counseling.
4. Little is said about Gregory of Nyssa’s formal education and his reputation for scholarship, compared to Basil and Gregory of Nazianzus. Perhaps the family did not have the resources to send him to Athens. Yet, Gregory of Nyssa is the philosopher of the three.
5. Were you aware that people had suffered and died at the hands of other Christians for their belief in the Nicene Creed?
6. Consider the problem of devout parents who send their children to school in various cities. Basil and Gregory were sent off to school. Gregory writes of the dangers to their faith presented by spectacles and banquets at school in Athens.
7. Gregory’s parents, St. Gregory of Nazianzus the Elder and St. Nonna, lived very long lives. He responded to their requests that he live with them and care for them. He even agreed to his father’s plea to become a priest and an auxiliary bishop. How do you react to the conflict he felt between the obligation he felt for them and his desire to live his life differently?
8. If you put together a family tree for yourself, do you know the religion of the living and deceased members of your family? Do you know who in your family became the first Christian or the first Catholic?
9. Have you noticed the number of saints in the families of Basil and Gregory? Do you have relatives that were, or are, holy men and women? Will you be one of them?
10. Read a short description of St. Basil’s defense of the Faith with Modestus, published on this webpage on June 8, 2011: http://www.speroforum.com/a/55198/St-Basil-the-Great-Giving-it-to-the-Man
Spero columnist James M. Thunder is a Washington DC attorney who also writes for The American Specttor,
This work is Copyright 2013 James M. Thunder. He also writes for the The American Spectator land the New Oxoford View, among other publications.
Excerpts from the following two books are by permission of the copyright holder, the Catholic University of America Press, all rights reserved so that if you wish to copy or redistribute, you must contact and make arrangements with the copyright holder:
St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Concerning His Own Life in St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Three Poems (trans. D.M. Meehan, O.S.B.) (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic Univ. of America Press, 1987), http://cuapress.cua.edu/books/viewbook.cfm?book=F075.
St. Gregory Nazianzen & St. Ambrose, Funeral Orations (trans. Leo P. McCauley, S.J., et al.), vol. 22 of Fathers of the Church (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1953, copyright renewed 1981), http://cuapress.cua.edu/books/viewbook.cfm?book=F022.