Basil & Gregory: the Dispute

As priests and bishops, the friends faced problems created by heretics -- Part 4

The reason Gregory had left Basil after his visit to Basil’s monastery was related to Gregory’s family. Gregory’s father, now in his 80’s, had become ill and had asked his son to return home.

During Christmastime, 362, Gregory was ordained a priest. Immediately Gregory thought he’d made a mistake and fled. He had wanted monastic life, a middle way between being a hermit and living a secular life, not the life of a secular priest (Concerning His Own Life, l. 310, p. 86). A few months later, by Easter 363, he returned. For the next ten years Gregory helped his father in both church and family business matters. He felt very frustrated that his family obligations would not allow him to join Basil:

As time went on…I could not be with him…Reverence for my parents, the care of their old age, and successive misfortunes separated me from him. This was not good, perhaps, nor fair, but at any rate they kept me from him. I ask myself [now after all these years] whether this was not the cause of all the inconsistency and difficulty which has befallen me in my life… (Funeral Orations, para. 25, p. 49)

Yet, Basil ended up on the same path as Gregory. After some seven years at his monastery, Basil left it and was ordained a priest in 365. (Basil’s brother Peter — later St. Peter — succeeded him as abbot. Some 15 years later, in 380, Peter was made bishop of Sebaste, Armenia. He participated in the Council of Constantinople in 381 and died about 391.) Four years later, in 369, Gregory’s brother Caesarius died. In 370, Basil’s mother died. That spring, Gregory and Gregory’s father influenced the decision to make Basil a bishop of Caesarea, Cappadocia.

As bishop, Basil devoted himself both to charitable works — he created a small town filled with homes, a church, an inn for travelers, workshops, and a hospital — and to defense of the Faith. Specifically, he defended the Nicene Creed that had been adopted in the Ecumenical Council held at Nicea 45 years earlier, in 325.

In 371, Basil persuaded his brother, Gregory, to be the bishop of Nyssa, a town within the jurisdiction of Basil, in lower Armenia. (He is now known as St. Gregory of Nyssa.)

In 372, Basil asked his friend Gregory also to be a bishop in a town within Basil’s jurisdiction. This became a dispute they were never able to bridge. The dispute concerned the episcopal territory of Basil. The emperor, Valens, an Arian heretic, wanted to undercut Basil who had dared to remain faithful to the Nicene Creed. The emperor divided the province of Cappadocia into two provinces, causing a conflict between the boundaries of the government’s provinces and of the Church’s dioceses. The Arian bishop, Anthimus, wanted the Church dioceses to mimic the government boundaries, which would enlarge Anthimus’s territory.

Gregory offered to help Basil in Basil’s problems with the Arians, but Gregory didn’t expect Basil’s solution. Basil’s solution was to create a new diocese — and he wanted to make Gregory bishop of it. Gregory reluctantly agreed and was consecrated — but then never took up residence in his diocese. The diocese was populated mostly by Arians, and Arian bishop Anthimus said he would prevent Gregory from serving as bishop by violence. Gregory and Basil were never as close again. In his autobiographical poem written late in life, Gregory wrote frankly:

[The diocese for which I was appointed by Basil is] without water or vegetation, not quite civilized, a thoroughly deplorable and cramped little village. There’s dust all around the place, the din of wagons, laments, groans, tax officials, implements of torture…The population consists of casuals and vagrants. Such was my church of Sasima. [Basil]…was so magnanimous [Gregory is being ironic] as to make me incumbent here…[On top of everything else wrong with the place,] that particular see couldn’t be held without bloodshed. It was a no man’s land between two rival bishops….The pretext was souls; but in fact, of course it was desire for control, control (I hesitate to say it) of taxes and contributions… (Concerning His Own Life, ll. 440-463, pp. 89-90)

It is as though Gregory were saying in today’s words: “Thanks, but no thanks” or “Thanks a lot, friend; who needs it!” or “With friends like Basil, who needs enemies?”

Gregory continues in his autobiographical poem with a description of the problem he faced with his dear friend Basil:

In the name of God, where did the proper course of action lie for me? Acquiescence? Patient endurance of assaults by scoundrels? Blows at all hours? Suffocation by dust? Not to have a place to rest my aging bones? Always being driven forcibly from my house? Not having bread to break with a guest? Penniless, with a penniless flock…Offer this sort of thing, if you please, to people with more wisdom than I can muster, and request another sort of generosity from me.

Athens, our studies together, our sharing of roof and hearth, the single spirit animating two people, the marvel of Greece, the pledge that we made that we would cast aside absolutely the world and live the [monastic] life for God, placing our words in the service of the one wide Word! This was the outcome of it all! (Concerning His Own Life, ll. 464-482, p. 90.)

In the next part, we’ll look at the impact of Arian heretics.


[Ed. note: Link to Part 3:

A link to Part 5:]


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:

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),


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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