Feast Day: January 2nd
We celebrate this week two of the greatest theologians of the Early Church. These two close friends, along with Basil’s brother, Gregory of Nyssa, form the three “Cappadocian Fathers” (nicknamed that because of their birthplace in Eastern Turkey, the ancient region of Cappadocia) who almost single-handedly (triple-handedly?) managed to convert the Eastern Empire to orthodox Christianity. Just as we saw St. Ambrose working so feverishly in the West at the same time (with St. Augustine), so these men preached and taught and argued for the full divinity of Christ, and, as we shall see, the Holy Spirit. I should mention that the older sister of Gregory of Nyssa, an early nun by the name of Macrina, is a tremendous theologian of her own right, so some have placed her with these three bishops as a 4th Cappadocian (a Cappadocian Mother, I suppose). That said, of the five siblings from this family – Basil, Macrina, Naucratius, Peter, and Gregory – all five are canonized saints! That, I suppose, is what happens when your grandmother is a martyr, your parents are known for their piety, and your children, after plenty of soul-searching, devote their lives to Christ. That, by the way, is the goal for all parents and grandparents reading this!
But what about Gregory Nazianzen? Why do we celebrate him along with St. Basil the Great? Shouldn’t Basil be linked with his brother, or sister, or grandmother in the panoply of the saints? Why share a feast day with his boyhood friend Gregory? Gregory, many years later, was preaching at the funeral of Basil, after a lifelong friendship, and lifelong work defending the faith, and explained it thus:
Basil and I were both in Athens. We had come, like streams of a river, from the same source in our native land, had separated from each other in pursuit of learning, and were now united again as if by plan, for God so arranged it. … I was not alone at that time in my regard for my friend, the great Basil. I knew his irreproachable conduct, and the maturity and wisdom of his conversation. … Such was the prelude to our friendship, the kindling of that flame that was to bind us together. In this way we began to feel affection for each other. When, in the course of time, we acknowledged our friendship and recognized that our ambition was a life of true wisdom, we became everything to each other: we shared the same lodging, the same table, the same desires, the same goal. Our love for each other grew daily warmer and deeper. The same hope inspired us: the pursuit of learning.
This is an ambition especially subject to envy. Yet between us there was no envy. On the contrary, we made capital out of our rivalry. Our rivalry consisted, not in seeking the first place for oneself but in yielding it to the other, for we each looked on the other’s success as his own. We seemed to be two bodies with a single spirit. … Our single object and ambition was virtue, and a life of hope in the blessings that are to come; we wanted to withdraw from this world before we departed from it. With this end in view we ordered our lives and all our actions. We followed the guidance of God’s law and spurred each other on to virtue. … our great pursuit, the great name we wanted, was to be Christians, to be called Christians. [Gregory Nazianzen, Oratio 43, Funeral Oration for Basil the Great, PG 36, 514-423]
I quote him at this length (and encourage you to read the entire homily linked above) because we live in a world of superficial friendships! I don’t say that lightly! But, of your friends, which ones would you say you “love” with a fiery, deep, tenacious love? We hesitate to do so because our world tells us that love is something romantic or sexual … and that’s a lie. Yes, love can be expressed by romantic or sexual actions, but love, at its core – by definition – is to will the good of another person, and the greater the good we sacrifice ourselves in order to establish in their lives, the greater the love and the deeper the friendship. How did these two men love each other? By studying about God together. By seeking His face side by side. By preaching and teaching Who He is, together, no matter the consequences. By encouraging each other in the search for virtue, for valor, for veracity. This is the basis for true friendship, desiring eternal goods for the other person: faith, hope, love.
If we’re in a friendship to get something less than these, or to give to the other person something less than these, we should not expect that friendship to carry us to heaven. Of course, every one of our friendships do not need to be of this sort, but some do. The voyage to God is not a single-player game.
– Fr. Dominic Rankin wanted to write about the corporal and spiritual works of mercy this week. As he began to tell Basil and Gregory’s story, he realized that his own notion of the corporal and spiritual works as done for somebody, way over there, was off the mark. These actions – (to super-summarize) of admonishing, instructing, forgiving, comforting, praying, feeding, sheltering, visiting, and burying – are ones we must do for our family and friends, for only then can we extend our love to the stranger afar.