Monday, January 02, 2012

Saints Basil and Gregory

Today was the Feast of Saint Basil of Caesarea and Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, two of the three major Cappodocian Fathers (the other being St. Gregory of Nyssa, Basil's brother), and also two of the Three Holy Hierarchs (the other being St. John Chrysostom).

Basil is a saint I have always found interesting. He was raised in a family of saints. His grandmother on his father's side was Saint Macrina the Elder; she and her husband -- whose name seems to be unknown -- were confessors who survived the Galerian persecution. His father was Saint Basil the Elder and his mother was Saint Emilia, who was herself the daughter of a martyr -- whose name also seems not to have survived history. Basil and Emilia had either nine or ten children, five of whom were canonized as saints: Saint Basil the Great, Saint Gregory of Nyssa, Saint Peter of Sebaste, Saint Naucratius, and Saint Macrina the Younger. You can learn a little about them in Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Macrina, which is one of the great classics of Christian theology.

Basil himself was something of what we could call a Forceful Personality. He was the sort of man who gets things done, and in the course of getting things done gets his way. In his long disputes with the Arians, he got a reputation for being the sort of person who could not be budged; Emperor Valens, who was an Arian, repeatedly tried to banish him -- and repeatedly failed. When he became bishop of Caesarea, he was essentially in charge of a region large portions of which were allied against him, and so, being Basil, he set about shoring up his position. He appointed his brother Gregory to be bishop of Nyssa, and he maneuvered his best friend, also called Gregory, into being bishop of Sasima. Now, this was no favor to either Gregory; Nyssa and Sasima were not exactly prime locations. We have letters from Gregory Nazianzen complaining vociferously about how Basil had stuck him in an awful backwater; he really and truly hated the place. When his father was dying, Gregory Nazianzen went back to Nazianzus and there he began to help run the Nazianzen diocese. Basil insisted that he return to Sasima; Gregory refused. They never stopped being friends, but they were never quite reconciled, either. It was all very much a Basilian thing; it is not for nothing that he is known as Basil the Great. He did not merely administer, he ruled; he did not merely maneuver, he conquered; he did not merely argue, he won. He was just that sort of person. But precisely because of his strategic and tactical mind, an immense amount of good was done for the people of his diocese: the list of things that Basil managed to accomplish for the poor in only nine years as Bishop of Caesarea is extraordinarily long, on top of his theological work, his episcopal duties, and outmaneuvering more enemies than you can count on the fingers and toes of a crowd. He was prodigiously competent at everything he did, almost more a force of nature than an ordinary man.

Gregory was no less interesting. He was also from a family of saints, albeit a slightly less prodigious one. His mother, Saint Nonna, married a Hypsistarian named Gregory -- Hypsistarians were pagans who, impressed by the Jews, had become monotheists and practiced some Jewish customs without actually converting. She converted her husband to Christianity. He was eventually made bishop of Nazianzus, and has become known as Saint Gregory the Elder of Nazianzus. They had had three children, Saint Gorgonia, Saint Gregory of Nazianzus, and Saint Caesarius of Nazianzus. Gregory Nazianzen continued on his career after Basil's death. He was persuaded by fellow bishops to become Patriarch of Constantinople in order to try to counter the spread of Arianism there. He became popular enough that an Arian mob tried to kill him; he survived. But he was soon betrayed by one of his friends, Maximus the Cynic (called so because of his interest in philosophy), who managed to get himself appointed Patriarch in Gregory's place. Basil would never, ever have been outmaneuvered in this way, but Gregory was no Basil. Precisely one of his complaints at Sasima was that he really just wanted to lead a life of prayer; he was not well-suited for ecclesiastical and imperial politics. In any case, Gregory was only barely convinced by friends not to resign; and for a while there were two people claiming to be the legitimate Patriarch of Constantinople. Gregory's claim was eventually upheld by the First Council of Constantinople, but almost immediately after this victory he resigned and went back home. Also a very un-Basilian thing to do; but it was a very Gregorian one.

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