Basil & Gregory: Monastic Life

The future saints developed enduring rules for monastery living -- Part 3

Basil either returned directly home from Athens and then toured the principal monasteries of the Eastern Roman Empire in Egypt, Palestine, and Syria or toured the monasteries before coming home (it’s unclear from my review of sources). At some point in these travels Basil’s older sister, St. Macrina, upbraided Basil for his pride and persuaded him to seek the life of a religious. What is clear is Basil gave up thoughts of a career in government. In 375 he wrote a letter that discussed this tour that occurred in the year 357:

After a long time spent in vanity, and almost the whole of my youth vanishing in the idle toil of studying that wisdom which God has made folly, when at length, roused as from a deep sleep, I gazed upon the marvelous light of Gospel truth…much did I…pray that guidance would be [given] to me…I earnestly desired to find some brother [in the Faith] who had made the same choice, and who might make the passage with me over the brief waves of this life…” (Newman, Historical Sketches, vol. 2, pp. 20-21, Letter to Eustathius, Bishop of Sebaste)

Basil realized that Gregory, who by now had left Athens, would not yet be joining him in a monastic setting because Gregory had chosen to care for his aging parents in Nazianzus. So, for the first year back from his tour, Basil decided to live in the area of Tibernia to be near Gregory.

Despite his shipwreck vow some years earlier, Gregory had postponed baptism during his student days in Athens — apparently so he could be baptized by his father. His father did baptize him at this time.

Gregory’s family and friends asked Gregory to reconsider his decision to join a monastery (with Basil) and, instead, to teach rhetoric in Nazianzus. Gregory did so for a time.

Basil didn’t like Tibernia and its weather. Basil relocated in 358 to Annesi in Pontus (known now as Ayvacik, Turkey) on the river Iris (known now as Yesil River). (This location was across the river from a women’s monastery but it is unclear whether Basil or the women arrived there first.) Basil wrote a long letter to Gregory about the natural beauty of the place, a place without wild beasts but with plenty of animals and fish for food. He concluded, “Does it not strike you what a foolish mistake I was near making when I was eager to change this spot for your Tibernia, the very pit of the whole earth?” (Newman, pp. 59-60)

Gregory sent a letter back making fun of each and every part of Basil’s description — perhaps because, if Basil’s description were true, then he would feel badly if he didn’t join Basil.

Gregory later paid Basil a long visit. By this time, other men had joined Basil. During Gregory’s visit, Gregory helped Basil develop rules for monastery living, rules that continue to be the rules for monastic life in the Eastern Churches. Together the young men worked on the editing of an anthology of the sayings of a theologian from the previous century, Origen of Alexandria (A.D. 184/185-253/254). Gregory even persuaded Basil’s brother, Gregory (later called “St. Gregory of Nyssa” — Nyssa was a town in Cappadocia, now called Harmandali, Turkey), to join them and work with them on this project. (Gregory of Nyssa was about five years younger than the other two. He had been ordained a lector (a minor order), had started a career teaching rhetoric, and had married a woman named Theosebeia. Gregory of Nazianzus admired both him and Theosebeia. By this time, Theosebeia had died.)

Upon his return to Nazianzus from Annesi, Gregory (of Nazianzus) wrote Basil a letter. This one described what a pit Annesi was: no roof, no door, rain, gardens without herbs, “a sad and hungry banquet” that consisted of food Basil had dared to call “bread” and “broth,” food that tasted like paste. He wrote that, thankfully, Basil’s mother (St. Emmelia) had come and rescued Gregory (presumably to her monastery across the river). He concluded that if Basil were annoyed by this description, Basil should think of Gregory who was annoyed by the reality of it all! (Newman, pp. 60-61)

Apparently, this letter hurt Basil’s feelings. Gregory wrote him again:

What I wrote before, concerning your Pontic [adjective for the noun Pontus] abode, was in jest, not in earnest; but now I write very much in earnest…Who shall restore me to those psalmodies [singing of Psalms], and vigils, and departures to God through prayer…or to that union of brethren, in nature and soul…or to that rivalry in virtue and sharpening of heart, which we consigned to written decrees and canons [referring to the rules of monastic life]? Or in that loving study of divine oracles, and the light we found in them, with the guidance of the [Holy] Spirit? Or, to speak of lesser and lower things, to the bodily labors of the day, the wood-drawing and the stone-hewing, the planting and the draining…For you are my breath, more than the air, and so far only do I live, as I am in your company, either present, or, if absent, by your image. (Newman, pp. 61-62)

In the next part, I’ll describe how they became priests and bishops.


[Ed. note: Link to Part 2:

A link to Part 4:]


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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