HEROES OF THE FOURTH CENTURY

PART II SAINT GREGORY OF NAZIANZUS AND SAINT BASIL THE GREAT

 

The Conflict Then and Now

No matter what its official policy with regard to the separation of church and state, every political state, ancient and modern, has been involved with the religious beliefs of its citizens. In the fourth century the state was officially Christian, but the Church was being undermined from within by those who wished to secularize and rationalize it. Today our world is divided according to whether the political states are communist or anti-communist. The relationship of the church to the state is much more complicated, but in both kinds of societies the church is challenged by scientific technology, and by people who think that the Church should conform to it. In the fourth century the Arians represented the secular and rational element which was in bitter conflict with the Orthodox whose faith was expressed in the Nicene Creed. The Arians employed every conceivable political device to oust the Orthodox from positions of authority and replace them with their own men.

Asia Minor, which is now Turkey, was divided into several dioceses among which were Pontus and Cappadocia. In the fourth century this area had the most thriving churches and the most active intellectual life of any part of the empire. In fact, until the time of Theodosius (AD. 379) all the emperors made their residence, not in Constantinople, but in Cappadocia or Antioch. Caesarea in Cappadocia (the modern Kayseri) and Antioch in Syria (now Turkey) were two of the places in which the Arian controversy brought forth the bitterest conflicts and whose churches became famous for the great men whom they produced.

 

Gregory Nazianzen: His Early Life

Three figures, all great fathers of the Church, tower above all others of this period: Gregory of Nazianzus, Basil the Great, and his brother Gregory of Nyssa. The Nazianzen was the eldest, having been born probably in A.D. 325, the year of the Council of Nicaea. He takes his name from the town near his father's estate where he was born. His mother Nonna was a Christian, a woman of remarkable learning, ability, and devotion, who converted her husband. Gregory's father had been a teacher of rhetoric (language and speech) in the pagan tradition, but when he became a Christian, he was made bishop of Nazianzus. Gregory had an older sister of whom he was very fond, and a younger brother Caesarius who became a physician at the imperial court in Constantinople. Gregory and his brother first went to school in Caesarea, where they met Basil, and then traveled together to another city named Caesarea in Palestine to study rhetoric. It was a period in which learning was highly regarded, and for this reason we have much written material about these great men and writings of their own which tell us about their lives and times.

From Palestine Gregory and his brother went to Alexandria. We are not sure whether they met Athanasius, but probably they did not. It seems to have been one of his periods of exile (AD. 340-347). From Alexandria Gregory took ship for Athens to pursue his studies. When the boat was off the island of Cyprus there was a tremendous storm. Everyone feared for his life, and Gregory, who was as yet unbaptized, vowed that if he escaped with his life, he would devote it to God. In Athens he was joined by his friend Basil, who had been his schoolmate in Cappadocia, and together they faced the temptations of student life which seem to have been as great then as now. There was a great deal of unrestrained indulgence in pleasure; there were organizations like fraternities which practiced "hazing." But Gregory and Basil made a positive decision not to become embroiled in these distractions but to maintain a disciplined life and devote themselves to study. One of their classmates was Julian, the future emperor, nephew of the incumbent emperor Constantius. Gregory said of him at the time, "What an evil the Roman State is nourishing!"

 

First Works for the Church

On his return to Nazianzus, Gregory stopped in Constantinople to bring with him his brother Caesarius, whose worldly life at court was a matter of great concern to him. In Nazianzus he divided his time between helping his father to manage his diocese and in staying with his friend Basil at a small monastery which he had established at Annesi in Pontus. During these periods together with Basil, they collaborated on a series of explanations of Holy Scripture which were called "Philokalia."

It soon became evident to Gregory that his father had too great a need for assistance for him to remain long detached from the Church. His father had gotten himself into trouble by being persuaded to sign one of the semi-Arian creeds which had been drawn up at one of the many synods (the Synod of Seleucia) which the emperor Constantius delighted to call together. The neighboring monks (who spent more time studying theology) withdrew from the diocese on the grounds that the bishop, Gregory's father, was not Orthodox. Gregory persuaded his father to sign an Orthodox creed and to deny his connection with any Arian persuasion. But the father, who was already about eighty-five years old, pressed Gregory to be ordained so that he could give him more assistance. In A.D. 361, the year in which Julian became emperor, Gregory was finally ordained much against his will, Almost immediately following the ordination he retreated to the monastery in Pontus and did not return until the following year at Easter. He preached the Easter sermon in his father's church and made apology for his flight, but the sermon became famous because he made it the occasion to explain in detail his beliefs concerning the office of priesthood, its nature and responsibilities. It became the classic treatise on the subject and was used as a model by St. Basil and later by St. John Chrysostom.

 

Gregory and the Pagan Emperor

Meanwhile, when Julian became emperor, Gregory had strongly urged his brother to leave the court, because he feared that its pagan influence would be even worse than the Arian. Caesarius finally agreed, taking advantage of Julian's departure for Persia, where the eastern boundaries of the empire were threatened, as occasion for his return to Nazianzus.

During his passage through Cappadocia, Julian did not miss the opportunity to continue his opposition to the Church, but sent the prefect of the province with an armed guard to demand the surrender of the church which Gregory's father served as bishop. The aged man, his son, and the people resisted with such strength that the prefect had to withdraw his forces. Julian transferred his attentions to other churches along his route, but because of the resistance he encountered, he abandoned the hope of success for the moment, promising to continue his persecutions when he had disposed of the Persians. In this he was disappointed because the Persians disposed of him instead, and he was killed before he reached Ctesiphon.

 

Troubled Years

The next year, A.D. 363, the bishop of Caesarea, Eusebius, prevailed upon Gregory's friend Basil to be ordained. Basil, like Gregory, preferred the monastic life, so it was only at the insistence of his friends, who pointed out that the dangers threatening the Church required that men of talent and ability such as himself be recruited to serve her, that he could be persuaded to take this step. Eusebius, however, quarreled soon after with Basil, and Basil took refuge in his monastery in Pontus. Eusebius thereupon invited Gregory to become his adviser. Gregory refused, not merely because his father needed him urgently, but more because he would not betray his friendship with Basil, instead, he made peace between the two.

Caesarius, who had returned to court on the accession of Valens, was rewarded by the emperor with a piece of valuable property in Bithynia. Shortly afterwards he died and left the property in trust to Gregory for the benefit of the poor.

 

An Unwilling Bishop

In A.D. 370 Eusebius, the bishop of Caesarea, died and Basil invited his friend Gregory to assume the episcopate. Gregory declined, saying that Basil was himself the obvious candidate. At the urgent persuasion of Gregory and other friends, Basil finally accepted the office and thereby became the protagonist in the conflict between the new Arian emperor Valens and the Orthodox Church. Valens was infuriated by the way in which the churches of Cappadocia were thriving and particularly by the power and success of Basil. He decided that the most effective way to reduce Basil's influence was to divide his diocese in half and establish the bishop of the neighboring city of Tyana as the metropolitan of the rival diocese.

Basil retaliated by creating two bishops to serve under himself and placed them in two towns of the disputed diocese. He won his point but lost a friend. The two men he made bishops were his brother Gregory and his friend Gregory Nazianzen. His friend was given a miserable little hamlet called Sasima as the seat of his diocese, and when, much against his will, he was persuaded by Basil's brother to make an attempt to assume his episcopal duties, he found the door of the church barred by force of arms, He returned home, resigned his see, and retired to the monastic life which he preferred above all other. His friendship with Basil was never restored. He preached a eulogy for Basil when he died in 377, and Basil attended the funeral of Gregory's father when he died in 374 at the age of 100, but otherwise their lives, which had been inseparably intertwined since school days, were separately directed, Gregory retired to the church of Saint Thekla in Isauria until the new emperor Theodosius summoned him to Constantinople in AD. 379.

 

First Orthodox Emperor Since Constantine

The emperor Gratian, a friend and disciple of the great Ambrose of Milan, became in AD. 379 the first Orthodox emperor since Constantine and appointed as his coemperor in the east a man named Theodosius who was also Orthodox. Theodosius came from Segovia in Spain and possessed the more violent enthusiasm of a frontiersman. Whether he was a convert or born Christian is uncertain, but his firm allegiance to the Orthodox faith throughout many political upheavals can be attributed in large part to his excellent wife Flacilla (or Placidia) who is honored as a saint. It was she who was responsible for Theodosius' refusal to listen to the arguments of "the fourth century rationalist" Eunomius. She had a strong influence over him and he became as zealous for Orthodoxy as his predecessors had been for Arianism. One of his first acts was to use a decree of state to abolish Arianism on the same terms that it had previously been established.

The people of Constantinople who had suffered forty years under Arian bishops asked Theodosius for on Orthodox one, and he granted their request. He invited Gregory to come from his retirement and occupy the episcopal throne. Conditions in the city were bad, because Valens had forbidden the Orthodox the use of all the churches, and numerous were the crimes which had been committed against them. Many new heresies had been encouraged, and Gregory devoted his skill to writing against the Eunomians who claimed that they could explain the nature of God by logical definition. Worst of all was the fact that the city mobs had become accustomed to Arian methods and propaganda. The situation in Constantinople at the time is described thus:
"Religious feeling, like everything else, had become to idle and empty minds a subject for joking and amusement. What belonged to the theatre was brought into the Church, and what belonged to the Church into the theatre. The more sincere Christian feelings were held up in comedies to the ridicule of the multitude. Everything was so changed by the people of Constantinople into a subject for amusement that anything serious was turned by witty remarks into trivia, and holy things became a subject for jokes and ridicule in the refined conversation of worldly people. The worst part was that the unrestrained delight of these men in pure enjoyment threatened to turn the Church into a theatre, and the preacher into a play actor. If he wanted to please the multitude, he must adapt himself to their taste, and entertain them amusingly in the Church. They demanded in the preaching something that would please the ear, flashy declamation with theatrical gestures; and they clapped with the same pleasure for the comedian in the holy place and him on the stage."

 

Gregory Appointed to Constantinople

It was this kind of environment that Gregory came to assume his duties. He established a chapel in the house of a relative, and went to work preaching on the subject of the Holy Trinity. Five of these, known as "The Five Orations" gained for him the title of "Theologian," conferred by the Council of Ephesus, a title which he holds alone with St. John the Theologian among all the fathers of the Church. St. Jerome came to Constantinople to hear him preach and praised him highly. Meanwhile the Arians persecuted Gregory. They hired assassins and tried to murder him. Worst of all, Gregory was led astray by an imposter, a man named Maximus, who was a confederate of some troublemakers in Egypt. Maximus was consecrated secretly and put on the archbishop's throne in the middle of the night. The people, whose violent expression of opinion had great influence on the course of events in this period, drove Maximus out, but they were also tired of Gregory. He was not the kind of showman that they liked. He was too ascetic, and would not attend fine banquets and live like a prince. Gregory, who desired nothing as much to return to monastic life, was prevented by his friends, who assured him that if he went, the "faith would go with him."

 

The Second Ecumenical Council

In AD. 380 Theodosius came to Constantinople, took the churches away from the Arians, and established Gregory in Saint Sophia. The following year he summoned a council of bishops (the Second Ecumenical Council) to assemble in Constantinople. Presiding over this council was Meletius, archbishop of Antioch, who had suffered many years of exile, first while he was bishop of Sebaste in Armenia, and later after he became archbishop of Antioch in 360. His restoration to the see, which had been usurped by Arian bishops, was due to Theodosius.

It was Meletius who performed the enthronement of Gregory as archbishop of Constantinople. Meletius was described as a man of "simple life, pure morals, sincere piety, affable manners who held the affection of his people and was esteemed by St. John Chrysostom, St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Gregory of Nyssa, St. Basil, and even by his adversary Epiphanius. There was honey in his disposition as well as in his name." (The ancients were fond of derivations, and they saw in the name Meletius a connection with the Greek word meli-honey). St. Basil wrote, " Meletius was the first to speak truly in favor of the truth and to fight the good fight in the reign of Constantius." Meletius avoided technical language and vain discussion, and when he was asked for a summary of Christian teaching, he extended three fingers, then closed two, and said, "Three persons are conceived in the mind, but it is as if we addressed one only." This gesture became a rallying sign, and there was a time when every family in Antioch had a son named Meletius in honor of this beloved leader.

The presidency of the Second Ecumenical Council was the final act of Meletius' career, for he died just after it had begun. Gregory took over the leadership of the council, and one of its first acts was to authorize his transfer from the see in Sasima to the capital of the empire. This immediately provided his enemies with grounds for technical censure. The trouble again originated with the Egyptian bishops who were jealous of the position of honor which the patriarchate of Constantinople had assumed. By this time Gregory had had enough, and he asked permission of the emperor to resign. The speech with which he took leave of the council remains one of the most magnificent orations ever delivered anywhere by anyone. In it he gave an account of his work in Constantinople. He returned to Nazianzus, where he soon found a successor to take over his duties there. For the few remaining years of his life he retired to the estate where he had been born. His sole luxuries during these years of retirement were a garden and a fountain. These days were spent in writing letters to his friends and in refuting the heresy of Apollinarius, bishop of Laodicea, thereby "anticipating in the fourth century the heresies of the fifth." He died in AD. 391.

 

St. Basil the Great

St. Basil, who was born about five years later than Gregory-in A.D. 330, the year of the founding of Constantinople-belonged to a remarkable Christian family. His grandparents had fled the persecution of Diocletian and taken refugee in Pontus, moving later to Caesarea. His grandfather had thereby lost life and property, but his grandmother Macrina survived and molded the Christian faith of the family. His father, whose name was also Basil, died early in life, leaving his mother Emmelia with a large family. There were originally five boys and five girls. We know of four boys all of whom become saints. One of the sisters, Macrina, led a very holy life which had great influence on her brothers and she, too, is remembered as a saint. Basil was the eldest son, the third was Gregory, and the youngest was Peter. All three became bishops.

 

Basil's Early Life

Basil's early life was centered partly in Caesarea in Cappadocia and partly in the estate at Annesi in Pontus, where his mother had founded a chapel dedicated to the forty martyrs of Sebaste, whose relics she possessed. Here under the tutelage of his grandmother, his mother, and his father, he was brought up to love and respect the teachings of the great bishop of that region, St. Gregory Thaumatourgos (the Wonderworker). He learned among other things a creed drawn up by him for the church of Neocaesarea.

Basil's father was a lawyer and rhetorician, and he followed this path of education, first at Caesarea, where he first met his great friend Gregory of Nazianzus, and then in Constantinople. In AD. 351 he proceeded to Athens where his university colleagues included his friend Gregory and the future emperor Julian. When he left Athens in 358, Basil was equipped with the best education which the times could supply, and this was no mean accomplishment. It is necessary to emphasize that it was not lack of education that determined the diverse objectives to which the lives of Basil and Gregory as opposed to Julian were dedicated. They were fully informed of all the rational arguments which Christianity faced then, and which it faces now, but they accepted different views.

 

Interest in Monasticism

After his return in 357 Basil was baptized and ordained reader. He had already decided upon the monastic life, and made an extensive journey to Syria, Palestine, and Egypt to visit monasteries and ascetics there. They must have been the occasion of his meeting Eustathius of Sebaste who became a lifelong friend and whom he greatly admired. Eustathius introduced monasticism into Pontus, and was later involved in the same troubles which beset Meletius. As a result of his study of other monastics of his day, Basil developed a new type of discipline which was to become the norm for eastern monasticism from that time forth. The rule of St. Basil is one which does not enforce absolute isolation, but prescribes a life in which monks share their food and live in communities, pursuing their studies and meditations in solitude. Basil established as his retreat his family home at Annesi, near the convent occupied by his mother and sister. He was influential in the establishment of similar communities throughout the district, each one of which became a center for active preaching of the Nicene doctrine.

While still a deacon, Basil attended one of the many councils convened by the emperor Constantius for the purpose of Arianizing the faith. Although he was not yet in a position of enough authority to carry much weight, he made many friends, among these friends were many who did not always know on which side of the theological argument to be. It required a firm and sure mind to steer a clear course among the various creeds and arguments which the Arians were constantly strewing in the way, and some of these friends found themselves in the position of being accused of heresies which they hardly understood. It was at this time that an Arian had been placed in the see of Antioch, and bishop Meletius, who was later to become its Orthodox bishop, had just been exiled from the see of Sebaste.

 

The Bishop of Caesarea

Basil was not ordained until AD. 364, the year of Valens' accession to the imperial throne. The bishop of Caesarea, who ordained him, and his friend Gregory of Nazianzus exercised persuasion to bring him from his monastic seclusion and to fight the battle against the Arians in the open field. "The Holy Spirit must win," they said. There was a great deal of public argument, and many false accusations were made against Basil's orthodoxy. Meanwhile Basil worked without ceasing, directing a theological campaign throughout the province by declaring himself willing to meet anyone in argument on the subject of the Nicene faith. It was probably at this time that he arranged and made use of the Liturgy which bears his name. Crowds of working people came to hear Basil preach before they went to work far the day. He traveled distances that would amaze people in on age of much easier travel. He established institutions for the sick, the orphaned, and the destitute. His friend Gregory of Nazianzus has left us a picture of Basil standing in the midst of a great crowd of men and women and children, some scarcely able to breathe because of the crush; of servants bringing in piles of food suited to the weak state of the famished sufferers; of Basil with his own hands distributing nourishment, and with his own voice cheering and encouraging the sufferers.

In AD. 370, on the death of his friend Eusebius, Basil was made archbishop of Caesarea. Toward the end of the following year he had his most serious conflict with the emperor. Valens was especially hostile to the diocese because the faith was thriving so well there. He wanted to undermine Basil's influence by dividing his diocese in half and making the divisions conform to political districts.

 

Basil and the Emperor

On his return from victories over the barbarians, Valens made a visit to Caesarea. Ahead of him traveled a man named Modestus, prefect of the guard, and ahead of Modestus traveled a troop of Arian bishops. By the time Modestus arrived, he found Basil making a firm standing against the bishops. Modestus summoned Basil with the thought of intimidating him. Modestus claimed submission in the name of the emperor. Basil refused in the name of God. Modestus threatened poverty, exile, torture, and death. Basil replied that none of these things frightened him; he had nothing to lose except a few rags and books; banishment could not remove him from the care of God; torture could not greatly harm a body almost dead already; death could only come as a friend to hasten his last journey. Modestus exclaimed in amazement that he had never had anyone speak thus to him before.

"Perhaps," replied Basil, "you have never met a bishop before."

The prefect reported to Valens, saying that other measures would have to be found to crush the prelate. Valens was not a man of strength, either physical or moral; he was obese and had crooked legs and a defective eye; he was hesitant in speech and action. The contrast between himself and Basil must have appeared dramatic. Basil was of upright carriage, commanding height, dignified manner, with long beard, high cheekbones, brown hair and eyes. Valens was so far from being able to pursue the challenge that he even agreed to attend church on the eve of Theophany. The church was crowded. The voices of the singers thundered mightily over the sea of heads. Before the sanctuary stood Basil, statuesque, like a prophet of old and quite indifferent to the interruption of the imperial arrival. Valens, who must have been unsure whether he was in heaven or on earth, staggered as he approached the throne of God.

The next day he had an interview with Basil concerning church matters. It was on this occasion that Basil's wit and sense of humor were manifest. The emperor had a steward named, like the Greek orator of the third century B.C., Demosthenes. This man was chief of the imperial kitchen, but he took it upon himself to interrupt the conversation between the emperor and the archbishop, and to give his opinions of the theological questions being discussed. He even threatened Basil with a knife and was told to return to his kitchen.

"An illiterate Demosthenes!" was Basil's comment, "It is better for him to cook the emperor's stew than to cook the divine dogmas."

Valens was pleased by the humor, and as a result made a contribution to Basil's orphanage, but his friendliness was purely superficial. Basil would not admit Arians to communion, and Valens could not tolerate his refusal. At the same time Valens was much distressed by the dangerous illness of his infant son, and asked Basil to pray for him in spite of the fact that he had just threatened him with exile.

Basil was not free of discourtesy on the part of public officials. On one occasion a widow came to him for help because an unwelcome marriage was being forced upon her. Basil's enemies made this an occasion for evil insinuations, and the magistrate went so far as to tear Basil's garment from his emaciated body and threaten him with torture. Basil replied that if this treatment was going to relieve him of his liver, it might relieve him of a great inconvenience, for he suffered from his liver!

So far Basil had triumphed in his conflict with the emperor, but he was faced with a new difficulty when his diocese was partitioned and half of it was given over to a rival bishop. Basil resisted by creating two dependent bishops himself and setting them up in the disputed territory. One was his younger brother Gregory whom he made bishop of Nyssa, and the other was his friend Gregory Nazianzen whom he established in Sasima. When someone suggested that these were extremely lowly places for men of such distinction, Basil replied that he expected the men to confer honor upon the places and not the places to confer honor upon the men. Even though he won a strategic victory, Basil lost a friend, for his relationship with his friend Gregory was never the same after that.

During the last few years of Basil's life the attention of the emperor was diverted from persecuting Christians to defending the Danube region against the Goths. In A.D. 378 Valens was killed in the battle of Adrianople and two-thirds of the imperial army was annihilated. It is characteristic of Basil's preoccupation with spiritual matters that these worldly events scarcely brought forth a mention. On January 1, 379 Basil died. Gregory of Nazianzus, who was not at his side, has nevertheless left a noble picture of his former friend. Several times after he was thought dead, he rallied enough to speak with vigor, and even conferred ordination on some of the faithful at his side. Crowds surrounded his residence, praying for him, willing to sacrifice their lives for him. Finally he said, "Into thy hands I commend my spirit," and was gone.

The funeral was attended by great hordes of persons of all sorts, including pagans and Jews, and the outcry of the people drowned out the sound of the hymns. The crowds were so great that some even got hurt in the press. He was laid to rest with his family and so passed the soul of a man whose life-long defense of the Church earned him the title of "the Great."

From Word Magazine
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
February 1968
pp. 15-19

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