THE CAPPADOCIAN FATHERS : ST BASIL THE GREAT AND ST GREGORY OF NAZIANZUS (feast 2.1)
Many champions of Catholic Faith endeavoured to effect a reconciliation with precise studies. The greatest were the three Cappadocians : St Basil, St Gregory of Nazianzus and St Gregory of Nyssa.
In Nicaea, the explanations adopted by the council insisted on an anti-subordinationist standpoint against Arius : they insisted on the unity of substance in the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity.
Now, to reconcile the semi-Arians, they insist on the trinity of Persons, against Sabellianism. These are the two ways, both catholic, to expose the mystery of the Holy Trinity.
The difficulty, and a cause of misunderstanding, was the indefinite meaning in Greek of the word ousia (nature) which some confounded with upostasis (person). In this case, the catholic homoousios would take a sabellianist meaning : one person in God ! St Basil and his school proposed the conciliatory formula of treis upostasis (three persons) and mia ousia (one nature), insisting on that ousia meant nature and upostasis person.
The three Cappadocians were characterised by saying that St Basil was the arm which acted, St Gregory the mouth which spoke and St Gregory of Nyssa the head which did the thinking.
ST BASIL THE GREAT (329-379)
I. His Life
Bishop of Caesarea, Doctor of the Church, he is the first of the great Cappadocian group (St. Gregory of Nyssa, his brother ; St. Gregory of Nazianzus, his friend). “In this trinity are concentrated all the rays of that brilliant epoch of Christianity”.
A) Before the episcopate.
Saint Basil was born at Caesarea, in Cappadocia of rich and deeply Christian parents. His father was an orator and an advocate ; his mother was renowned for her virtue. His maternal grandfather had been a martyr, and Macrina, his grand-mother on his father's side, had been a disciple of Saint Gregory Thaumaturgus in Pontus. His eldest sister, Macrina, also lived the life of a saint on her lands at Annesi which she had turned into a monastery. Two other brothers were, like Basil himself, destined to become bishops, Gregory at Nyssa and Peter at Sebaste.
He received his first lessons from his father at NeoCaesarea. He then went to finish his literary education, first at Caesarea, then at Constantinople, and finally at Athens, in which town he remained for four or five years. It was here that he formed a close friendship with his compatriot, Gregory Nazianzen, whom he had already met at Caesarea and who had gone before him to Athens. On his return to Cappadocia in 356 he spent some time successfully in teaching rhetoric, but in a number of conversations with his sister Macrina he learnt the vanity of human things, and was ‘converted’ (a new resolution to tend to perfection) and baptised (357 ).
It was at this same period that Macrina had founded the monastic life at Annesi. Basil, moved by grace, thought of imitating her, but first he desired to know more of this way of life. Besides the disciples of Eustathius of Sebaste in Cappadocia, he visited the great solitaries of Egypt, Syria and Mesopotamia. On his return he gave all his possessions to the poor and went to live in solitude on the banks of the Iris, opposite Annesi, near Neo-Caesarea. He was soon joined by other fervent Christians who also aspired to perfection. He grouped them according to the monastic rule of Saint Pachomius, although the monasteries he founded were less numerous. He gave to them a wise rule of life and provided for their moral and ascetical direction by the Longer Rules which date from this period, and later by the Shorter Rules which were probably composed while he was a priest at Caesarea. These two Rules soon acquired a widespread popularity and earned their author the title of the “Lawgiver of oriental monachism”.
His teaching and example were so powerful that in a short time Pontus was changed. Gregory of Nazianzus came often to the Pontic desert, and he and Basil published a selection from Origen’s works (Philokalia). Eusebius, elected to Caesarea, asked Basil to help him, persuaded him to become a priest and return to Caesarea to face the difficulties created by Arianism. Eusebius was not a skilled theologian himself, and Basil was to him “a good counsellor, a skilful helper, an expounder of the Scripture, an interpreter of his duties, ...the prop of his faith” (Greg. Naz.). During this period he wrote the Hexaemeron - The Six Days Work.
B) The episcopate.
Eusebius died in 370, and Basil succeeded him as metropolitan of Caesarea. He found many abuses to be corrected, including simony and laxity in ordination, and encountered a good deal of opposition to his reforms. Before his death he had brought the clergy of Caesarea to such a standard that other bishops used to ask them to help them in their dioceses.
He undertook great social-relief works, established industries and schools of Art and founded orphanages, the chief one being the building of the Ptocho-tropheion, institute for the care of the poor.
He had numerous clashes with the Arian emperor Valens, whom he withstood as he had withstood Julian the Apostate (a friend of his Athens days). He suffered a great deal of ill health, and the ill-will of many bishops, including his uncle Gregory, caused him considerable annoyance.
In 371 Cappadocia was divided and two capitals created - Caesarea and Tyana - and grievous discord was caused between Basil and Anthimus. Basil, to counteract his influence, appointed Gregory of Nazianzus bishop of the wretched frontier town of Sasima, for which Gregory never quite forgave him. He tried frequently to heal the Meletian schism at Antioch. He concerned himself above all with the overthrow of Arianism. The mantle of Athanasius fell on him, and though during the troubled years of his brief episcopate his true worth was not fully appreciated, he was soon after his death hailed as `Great' recognised as a champion of orthodoxy second only to St. Athanasius in his controversial and expository powers. For this, and for his role as the final architect of monachism as it still obtains in the East, he is chiefly renowned.
The common house, common table, common prayers which are permanent possessions in the West were welded by him into a system. “He reduced the ascetical extravagance of eremitical enthusiasm to the abiding capacity of human nature. Through him monasticism became an institution, something that could live and grow without the capricious appeal of a great personality or the spontaneous ascetical fervour of a particular age and country”. (Campbell).
He died on 1st January, 379, after nine years of hard work and bitter disappointments, quarrels and broken health and the whole population, Christian, Jew and pagan, mourned him.
II. His Writings
(A) Dogmatico-Polemical. These are devoted to the overthrow of Arianism.
· Against Eunomius (364) three books. Eunomius, he says, is guilty of deceit in calling his own work Apologeticus, whereas it is really an attack. These books deal with the Trinitarian doctrine
- Bk. 1 deals with the essence and attributes of God
- the consubstantiality of the Son
- the objections of Eunomius against the divinity of the Holy Ghost.
· De Spiritu Sancto, The Holy Spirit (375) treats of the consubstantiality of the Son and the Holy Spirit with the Father and defends the doxology “Glory be to the Father with the Son together with the Holy Spirit” (maintaining it was as orthodox as “Glory be to the Father through the Son in the Holy Spirit”). His De Spiritu Sancto prepared the way for the decrees which Constantinople (381) gave on the creed.
(B) Exegetical Writings.
· The Hexaemeron, -nine homilies given by Basil as a priest before 370 (Gen. 1,1-26) - all Christian antiquity esteemed them very highly.
· On the Psalms (370), sixteen homilies (number uncertain). Basil kept to the literal sense.
· On Isaiah 1-16 - imperfect in form and contents.
(C) Ascetical Works.
· A group of Ascetica, containing three treatises:
- on the sublimity of the life of the monk as a soldier of Christ;
- the excellence of the monastic life
- the duties of a monk,
· Moralia, a group of eighty rules or instructions. Also De Judicio Dei, and De Fide, Duo Sermones Ascetici.
· Two monastic rules - Regulae Fusius tractatae, (the longer Rule) and brevius, (the shorter Rule). The first contains 55 longer rules, the second 313 shorter rules, both in question and answer form, setting forth the rules of the monastic life and their application to daily life. They were received universally in the East, and survive to the present day.
(D) Homilies, Letters, Liturgy.
· Twenty-four homilies are accepted as genuine and they show Basil as one of the greatest pastors and orators of ecclesiastical antiquity. The most brilliant is probably his homily against usurers. The one best known, however, is the homily on the use of the pagan Classics (Migne, P.G. 31, 563-590) “To youths as to how they shall best profit by the writings of the pagan authors”. In this he uses the illustration of the bee collecting honey from flowers while avoiding poison. The treatise became very celebrated. It certainly helped to preserve the Classics.
· Letters : These were always very highly esteemed. They show, perhaps best of all his writings, his refinement of mind, his great and sympathetic character and the perfection of his style. There are 365 and they are important for the history of Basil’s period and for points of doctrine.
· The so-called Liturgy of St. Basil survives in the Greek text and a Coptic translation. St. Basil reduced the prayers and ceremonies in Caesarea to a fixed form and order.
St. Basil the Great was great as an exponent of doctrine, a homilist, great in practical life - (Gregory of Nazianzus was the speaker and writer ; Gregory of Nyssa the thinker). The Trinity is the chief subject of his dogmatic writings. He maintains God’s unity against the Arians, and the Trinity of Persons against the Sabellians.
ST GREGORY OF NAZIANZUS (c. 329-390)
I. His Life
Bishop of Constantinople, Doctor of the Church, St. Gregory neither was born in Nazianzus nor was bishop of this town : his father was the bishop of Nazianzus.
A) Before the episcopate
Gregory was born near Arianzus. His father, and especially Nonna, his mother, were careful that lie received a sound Christian education, although as was the custom at that time he was not baptised. He was educated like Basil, at home, in Caesarea (Cappadocia) and Caesarea (Palestine), Alexandria, and Athens where he renewed an acquaintance made with Basil in Caesarea. He left Athens c. 360. After about twelve years he went home and occasionally spent some time with Basil in Pontus, the monastic life being his ideal even while he was a student.
He returned to Cappadocia about 359, was baptised and went to join his friend in solitude on the banks of the Iris. There he combined study with his ascetical exercises, and interested himself more especially in the works of Origen ; the Philocalia, written about 360, is a proof of their mutual admiration for the master.
Soon, however, Gregory’s father sent for his son to aid him in the administration of the diocese and found in him a devoted helper until his death in 374. Things did not always run smoothly, however. When the Bishop wished to ordain his son priest in 362, the latter consented with great reluctance, so much so in fact that shortly afterwards he took refuge with Basil in Pontus. He came back only when it was necessary for him to help his father to repress a schism in his church. The old bishop, little versed in theological subtilties (he was converted as an old man and had almost immediately been made bishop), had been weak enough or imprudent enough to sign the Homoean formula of Rimini-Constantinople. In consequence there was a strong party to oppose him. Gregory persuaded his father to make a purely Catholic profession of faith, thus satisfying everyone and restoring peace in the diocese (about 364).
In 371, Basil, desirous of creating a bishopric at Sasimes, as an offset to the usurpations of Anthimus, Archbishop of Tyana, appealed to Gregory, who although unwilling allowed himself to be consecrated. Soon, however, he was again swayed by his passion for solitude and fled secretly to a house of retreat to weep over his lost freedom. He forgave his friend later, but always regretted having been forced into the episcopate. lie also complained that he was again torn away from his solitary life by his father’s white hairs. It would not seem, however, that he ever took up his post at Sasimes.
B) Bishop of Constantinople.
After the deaths of his mother and father in 374, Gregory was at last able to give himself up entirely to the contemplative life. He withdrew to the monastery of Saint Thecla at Seleucia in Isauria. It was here in 378, after the death of Valens, that the Catholics of Constantinople came to beg him to restore the orthodox faith in their town. While Valens lived, Arianism had flourished in the East and in Constantinople the Catholics had dwindled to an insignificant nucleus. When Gratian took over the whole empire and then handed over the East to Theodosius, a Spaniard and a Catholic, hope for Catholicism revived.
Saint Basil pressed him to accept this invitation. He yielded to these appeals in 379 and opened a little church in the house of one of his kinsmen where he was given the faithful support of the orthodox Catholics of the town. His virtue and his eloquence soon attracted many serious listeners, and it seemed as if the Church of Constantinople, which for forty years had been oppressed by Arian intrigue and violence, was to rise again in that tiny sanctuary. Gregory himself had been inspired to give the name of Anastasia (Resurrection) to his chapel. It was here that he preached his most famous sermons, notably his discourses on the Trinity, which have since earned for him the title of theologian. By his admirable eloquence he soon won over to his faith the educated and cultured classes of the town. St. Jerome travelled from Syria to hear him. But the Arians placed every possible hindrance in his way. He was extremely discouraged by the attempted intrusion of Maximus the Cynic in the See of Constantinople. Fortunately this attempt was not successful since Theodosius repulsed Maximus and himself conducted Gregory to Saint Sophia, where The Catholics insisted on having him as their bishop.
He refused until the second General Council, convoked by Theodosius, 381, assembled and the Fathers acclaimed him as their bishop and as presiding the Council. He had done his best to heal the Meletian schism and failed. Some late-comers disputed his own nomination and he gladly resigned the dignity. In a magnificent address to the episcopal assembly he bade them farewell - June 381 - and retired to Nazianzus which he directed until its bishop, Eulalius, was appointed in 383, and thenceforward he lived at Arianzus, devoted to his books and to the cherished life of quiet and asceticism. He died in 389 or 390.
Events and the entreaties of his friends called him to an active life while he yearned for solitude. There is no doubt that he was not apt for active life, nor capable of sustaining the stress of combat. His powerful eloquence was the chief source of his success. He is one of the great Fathers, and one of the greatest orators of Christian.
Not as great a ruler as Basil, he surpasses him in his command of rhetoric. Not as profound a thinker as Gregory of Nyssa, he was, more than he, the representative of the common faith of the Greek Church towards the end of the fourth century. Rufinus says of him that his teaching in dogma was looked on with respect as a rule of Christian faith. De Broglie writes : “In a few hours and a few pages Gregory summed up and closed the controversy of a whole century”.
His Apology for his flight, really a treatise on the priesthood, was a source for such works as St. Chrysostom's De Sacerdotio and Pope Gregory's Regula Pastoralis.
II. His Writings
· 45 Orations
Five Theological Orations (27-31) are the most perfect of his orations - they have won for him the title of “Theologian” (i.e. defender of the Godhead). They were delivered in 380 in Constantinople against the Eunomians and Macedonians. He treated of the existence, nature, attributes of God ; unity of nature in the three Divine Persons ; divinity of the Son ; replies to objections ; refutation of objections against the divinity of the Holy Spirit.
Other striking orations were Apologeticus pro fuga ; Adversus imperatorem Julianum ; Oratio funebris in Patrem, Or. 21 in laudem magni Athanasii, Or. 43 in laudem Basilii.
· 243 Letters.
Written between 383 and 389. They excel in style, Ep. 101 on Christological doctrine was praised highly at Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451).
· 200 Poems.
Written in 383-389. They were propaganda against heresies, and aimed also at supplying for the loss of pagan writings that were unsuitable for Christians. De Vita Sua is an outstanding one, describing the vicissitudes of his life and defending his actions.