Today the Roman Martyrology commemorates Gregory of Nyssa, brother of Basil the Great and Macrina (see blog entries for 2-9 January 2016). Among Gregory’s most influential works are his Life of Moses and homilies on the Song of Songs. The latter were composed at the behest of a wealthy young Christian woman named Olympias who lived in Constantinople, and were delivered in the church at Nyssa during Lent, most likely in 394 or 395.
In his preface Gregory explains that although he wrote them in response to Olympias’ requests, he did so not for her benefit, since he is sure she has no need of them, but so that ‘some direction may be given to more fleshly folk for the sake of the spiritual and immaterial welfare of their souls.’
In addressing them to a congregation of ordinary churchgoers Gregory shows a confidence in the spiritual maturity of ordinary laypeople which contrasts strikingly with the reservations of his mentor Origen, who in the prologue to his own commentary on the Song ‘[advises and counsels] everyone who is not yet rid of the vexations of the flesh and blood and has not ceased to feel the passion of his bodily nature, to refrain completely from reading this little book and the things that will be said about it. For they say that with the Hebrews also care is taken to allow no one even to hold this book in his hands, who has not reached a full and ripe age.’
For Basil and his confreres, the monastic life, which they equated with the life of ‘true philosophy’, was the paradigm of the Christian life. Basil provided the nascent monastic movement of Asia Minor with an organisational context and brought it within the fold of the Church. The monastic or ‘philosophic’ life began with purification and proceeded through contemplation to eventual divinisation. It was the life of ‘perfect renunciation’ that ‘would lead without impediment to virtue.’ Here, in the context of the Greek Fathers, we hear the most authentic voice of Greek philosophy: not the intellectual abstractions of Aristotle (which in contrast to the excitement they caused in the medieval Islamic and Latin worlds attracted relatively little interest in antiquity), but a lived praxis, a ‘way of life’ which aimed to heal the soul and lead, by way of love, to a knowledge of the Good, the True and the Beautiful which was not only intellectual but above all existential: if you weren’t living it, you didn’t know it.
Gregory of Nyssa writes of their sister Macrina, ‘We had a sister who was for us a teacher of how to live, a mother in place of our mother. Such was her freedom toward God that she was for us a strong tower and a shield of favour as the Scripture says, and a fortified city and a name of utter assurance, through her freedom towards God that came of her way of life.’ Not surprisingly, Basil strongly supported women in religious life: ‘If women also choose to live according to the Gospel, and prefer virginity to marriage … they are blessed in their choice wherever they are upon the earth … We for our part pray to have communities of both men and women whose citizenship is in heaven’. Again, ‘The female too joins the campaign at Christ’s side, being enrolled in the campaign according to her virility of soul, rejected in no way for weakness of body. Many women have excelled not one whit less than men. Indeed some have proved themselves even more outstanding. Among their number are those who fill the choir of virgins. From their number are those who have shone resplendently in the contests of confession and in the victories of martyrdom. For the Lord himself, when he came, was not only followed by men, but also by women, and both sexes ministered to the Saviour’.
There was also a ‘Cappadocian Mother’, Basil’s older sister, Macrina. At the age of twelve she was betrothed to be married, but before the marriage could take place her fiancé died, whereupon she insisted that, since a person could only marry once, and since betrothal was spiritually equivalent to marriage, she would henceforth live as a widow dedicated to Christ. Following the death of their father soon afterwards, Macrina instigated the conversion of their household into a monastic community, emancipating the slaves and abolishing all distinctions of social rank. When Basil returned home from his studies in Athens, she was unimpressed with the airs and graces he had acquired. According to the Life of Macrina, written by their brother Gregory of Nyssa, Basil ‘was at that time excessively puffed up with the thought of his own eloquence and was disdainful of local dignities, since in his own inflated opinion he surpassed all the leading luminaries. She, however, took him in hand and drew him with such speed towards the goal of philosophy that he withdrew from the worldly show and despised the applause to be gained through eloquence, and went over of his own accord to the life where one toils with one’s own hands, thus providing for himself through perfect renunciation a life that would lead without impediment to virtue.’
Today is the feast of Basil the Great (330-379) and his friend, Gregory Nazianzus (329-390), known as ‘the Theologian’. Together with Basil’s brother Gregory of Nyssa, they are remembered as the Cappadocian Fathers. Basil was one of ten children born into a wealthy Christian family whose commitment to their faith had been tested by persecution: a maternal grandfather had suffered martyrdom, while their paternal grandparents had their property confiscated and fled to the forested mountains of Pontus where they lived for seven years by hunting and fishing. Basil and Gregory Nazianzus met as students in Athens and remained lifelong friends. They had contrasting temperaments. Basil was the extravert man of action, an able leader, administrator and ecclesiastical politician whose preferred form of religious life was communal, while Gregory was a sensitive introvert, poet and man of letters who disliked publicity and loved solitude. Both were major players in the development and consolidation of Trinitarian doctrine and the victory of Nicene orthodoxy, which affirmed the divinity of the Son, over Arianism, which denied it. It is to Gregory that we owe the maxim, ‘What has not been assumed, has not been redeemed’ (Letter 101).