Basil & Gregory: Early Years

Two school chums who became saints -- Part 1

The Church annually celebrates the feast days of St. Basil of Caesarea and St. Gregory of Nazianzus on January 1 in the East and January 2 in the West. Their story of great affection, and estrangement, follows below. But first let me say that Pope St. John Paul II often described the Greek language East (the Orthodox Churches and the Eastern Churches of the Catholic Church) and the Latin language Catholic West (the Latin Church) as “two lungs” of the Christian Faith. This phrase appeared in his 1988 document Euntes in mundum on the 1,000 anniversary of the conversion of Russia, and in his 1995 Apostolic Letter “May They Be One” (Ut Unum Sint), paragraph 54. Of the Doctors of the Church, four are Greek and Gregory and Basil are two of the four.

The following tells their story from their point of view. They left us writings that talk about themselves and one another.

Gregory (called “St. Gregory of Nazianzus the Younger” – his father was “St. Gregory of Nazianzus the Elder”) was born in the town of Arianzus, near Nazianzus, in the province of Cappadocia and in what is now Nenizi, Turkey, about A.D. 330. He was educated first in Caesarea, the capital and main city of Cappadocia (now known as Kayseri, Turkey). Basil (called “St. Basil the Great” or “St. Basil of Caesarea”) was born in Neocaesarea, Pontus (now known as Niksar, Turkey) also about 330 and was a fellow student of Gregory’s in Caesarea.

Both boys left Caesarea to continue their studies and ended up together in Athens, Greece. Basil went from Caesarea to Constantinople (now known as Istanbul, Turkey) and then to Athens. Gregory went to Palestine, to a town in that province also called Caesarea. His parents then sent Gregory to Alexandria, Egypt, and later Athens.

Athens

The trip by ship from Alexandria to Athens was a big turning point in Gregory’s life. He was in a shipwreck. He was still a catechumen in the Catholic faith, but during the shipwreck he vowed to dedicate the rest of his life to God. In a poem written near the end of his life, he described this event in a passage that is famous among historians for its details about an ancient shipwreck experience. The following passage is from the poem “Concerning His Own Lifein St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Three Poems (trans. D.M. Meehan, O.S.B.; in The Fathers of the Church series; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1987; see the CUA Press copyright notice at bottom):

[T]he moment I chose to leave [Alexandria] was altogether outside the sailing season, before the sea had settled down…I put off and was making straight for Greece in the lee of Cyprus, when the ship was struck by a squall. Everything became a great blackness: land, sea, air, the sky all darkened. Thunderclaps resounded amid flashes of lightning, and the sheets quivered as the sails were filled. The mainmast bent: the rudder had no effect as the blasts tore it forcibly from one’s hands. Mountainous seas swamped the vessel. A confused clamor arose, cries of sailors, helmsmen, officers, passengers, all calling with one voice upon Christ, even the people who formerly knew not God. (Fear is an opportune teacher.) The most pitiable of all our misfortunes, however, was that the boat was without [drinking] water. The moment she began to roll, the cistern which carried the precious treasure of water was smashed and scattered to the depths. The question then was whether thirst, or the sea, or the winds should make an end of us. But God sent speedy deliverance from it all. Phoenician merchants suddenly made their appearance. They were in fear themselves; but when they realized from our entreaties how desperate our plight was, they made our craft fast by using grappling hooks and main strength, for they were very strong. They rescued us indeed from a state of practical [that is, virtual] shipwreck, like fish gasping out of native element, or a lamp flickering out when all the oil is gone.

            The sea continued angry, however, and we were harassed for several days. Driven hither and thither we had no notion of where we were sailing, and we could see no hope of safety from God. All of us feared a common death, but more terrifying for me was the hidden death. Those murderous waters were keeping me away from the purifying waters [of baptism] which divinize us. That was my lament and my misfortune, and my cries overcame the pounding of the waves. Stretched miserable and prone I lay with garments rent…[We were] voyagers on a common sea of woe.

           However You, my Christ, were even then a mighty savior, just as now You are my deliverer from the storms of life. There was no shred of solid hope, no island, no mainland, no mountain top, no beacon light, no guiding star for sailors: nothing large or small that one could see.

            [He promised and challenged God:] If I escape a double danger [shipwreck and death before baptism] I shall live for You; if I am abandoned, you will lose a worshipper…

            …The clash of winds abated, the sea grew calm, the ship sailed straight on course…We passed Rhodes and a little later struck sail in the harbor of Aegina… [ll. 125-209, pp. 80-83]

Gregory was studying rhetoric in Athens when he learned that Basil would be coming for additional studies in the same city.

Many years later, on the third anniversary of Basil’s death, Gregory delivered a funeral oration in which he described the years the two spent in Athens. His oration is included in the book St. Gregory Nazianzen & St. Ambrose, Funeral Orations (trans. Leo P. McCauley, S.J., et al.; vol. 22 of Fathers of the Church; New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1953, copyright renewed 1981; see the CUA Press copyright notice at bottom). In this sermon, Gregory recalled that he did two things for Basil. First, new students were subjected to a custom of being “rallied,” or what we today would call “hazed”:

The practice, to those who are ignorant of it, seems fearful and brutal. [The new student] is led in procession through the marketplace to the bath where [the current students] …raise great shouts and leap up and down, as though in a frenzy…At the same time they pound at the doors and frighten the youth with the uproar…

            At that time, not only was I myself unwilling to subject my friend…to shame, reverencing as I did his gravity of character and his maturity of judgment, but I also persuaded the other youths who did not know him to share my sentiments. For he was already respected by most of them, since his renown had preceded him. The result was that he was almost the only newcomer to escape the general rule, a distinction beyond that generally accorded to new students.

This was the prelude to our friendship. This was the spark that enkindled our union. It was thus that we were struck with mutual love. [paras. 16-17, pp. 40-41]

The next part of this blog series will begin with the second thing Gregory did for Basil when they were students.

 

[Ed. note: for Part 2, click here: https://www.newoxfordreview.org/two-saints-who-shared-a-yoke/]

 

Copyright Notice:

St. Gregory of Nazianzus, “Concerning His Own Life” in The Fathers of the Church series, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Three Poems (trans. D.M. Meehan, O.S.B.; Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1987), available here: https://www.cuapress.org/9780813213057/three-poems/

St. Gregory Nazianzen & St. Ambrose, Funeral Orations (trans. Leo P. McCauley, S.J., et al.), vol. 22 of Fathers of the Church (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1953, copyright renewed 1981), http://cuapress.cua.edu/books/viewbook.cfm?book=F022.

 

James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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