Two Saints Who Shared a ‘Yoke’
Ss. Basil and Gregory became good friends at school in Athens -- Part 2
In my last post I related how Gregory spared Basil “hazing” on beginning school in Athens. The second thing Gregory did for Basil when they were students was as follows: Some of their childhood friends now at the school asked Basil questions. At first, Gregory joined in the discussion hoping to show, along with these friends, that Athens had something to offer even a great scholar like Basil. But then Gregory realized that they aimed to bait Basil by plying him with “questions of a contentious rather than a reasonable character, and strove to vanquish him at the first onset, both because they had long recognized the genius of Basil and because they could not endure the honor being shown him at this time.” So, Gregory says, “I changed my position immediately and, putting my ship about and ranging myself on his side, I made his victory decisive. He was at once quite pleased with what had happened…This was the second step in our friendship, no longer a spark but a flame that burned bright and high” (Funeral Orations, para. 17, pp. 41-42).
This problem with classmates, however, led Basil to think that Athens was not what he had hoped: “he called Athens an empty happiness” (Funeral Orations, para. 18, p. 43). Gregory successfully consoled Basil and persuaded him to stay. “[A]s time went on, we mutually avowed our affection for each other, and that philosophy was the object of our zeal. Thenceforth we were all in all to each other, sharing the same roof, the same table, the same sentiments, our eyes fixed on one goal, as our mutual affection grew ever warmer and stronger” (Funeral Orations, para. 19, p. 43).
Unlike Basil, Gregory found happiness in Athens. Gregory said he had gone to Athens for schooling. Athens was “the home of eloquence…truly golden, patroness of all that is excellent…And in my search for learning I found happiness.” Yet, he found in Athens something wonderful for which he had not even come; he had found Basil (Funeral Orations, para. 14, p. 38).
Gregory describes their relationship still more:
Oh, how can I evoke such memories without tears! We were impelled by equal hopes in the pursuit of learning…But envy was absent…There was a contest between us, not as to who should have first place for himself, but how he could yield it to the other, for each of us regarded the glory of the other as his own. We seemed to have a single soul animating two bodies…For companions we consorted, not with the most dissolute but with the most modest, not with the most quarrelsome but with the most peaceable…We knew that it was easier to be contaminated by vice than to communicate virtue…
Two ways were familiar to us: the first and more precious leading us to our sacred buildings and the masters there; the second and the one of less account, to our secular teachers. All else — festivals, spectacles, assemblies, and banquets — we left to those with a taste for such things… Different men have different names, derived from their ancestors or their own pursuits and deeds. Our great concern, our great name, was to be Christians and be called Christians…
…Athens is harmful, in general, to the things of the soul…It abounds in the evil riches of idols…and it is difficult not to be led astray…But in our case no harm resulted, as our minds were protected by an impenetrable armor. On the contrary, to speak paradoxically, our own experience there confirmed us in the Faith. For we recognized their deceit and fraudulence… (Funeral Orations, paras. 20-21, pp. 44-45)
Gregory and Basil were so good, so excellent, and so close that they were regarded as “a famous pair” (Funeral Orations, para. 22, p. 46), “a team…that was celebrated throughout Greece” (poem, Concerning His Own Life, l. 227, p. 83).
After several years of these studies and a deepening friendship, both men decided it was time to leave schooling. Gregory was “already…practically in [his] 30th year” (poem, Concerning His Own Life, l. 239, p. 84). They had a common purpose in leaving — to pursue a life with God. St. John Henry Newman, who wrote biographies of both men, has added that it appears the reason Basil became anxious to get on with his life was the death of his younger brother Naucratius (J. H. Newman, Historical Sketches, vol. 2; London: Longmans, Green, & Co., 2d ed. 1857; ch. 1-4 re: Gregory & Basil, p. 22).
Gregory described in his funeral oration for Basil and the poem he wrote late in life that their companions, classmates, and even some teachers surrounded them and did and said everything they could to persuade them to remain in Athens. “They held on to me tightly, insisting that they would not let me go for any reason” (poem, Concerning His Own Life, l. 254, p. 84). Gregory understood how much affection these people had for them.
Gregory says Basil was strong like an “oak tree” but he (Gregory) was weak. Under this pressure, Gregory changed his mind and stayed. Basil was so strong that he left even after realizing that Gregory was to remain.
To Gregory, Basil’s departure “was like cutting a body in two parts, with the resulting death of both, or like the parting of two oxen that have shared the same manger and yoke, bellowing piteously for each other in distress at their separation” (Funeral Orations, para. 24, pp. 48-9). Not able to bear the loss of Basil any longer, Gregory left Athens a short time later; “almost by stealth I slipped away” (poem, Concerning His Own Life, l. 264, p. 84).
In the next part of this series, I’ll look at their lives immediately after leaving Athens.
Link to Part 1: https://www.newoxfordreview.org/basil-gregory-early-years/
Link to Part 3: https://www.newoxfordreview.org/basil-gregory-monastic-life/]
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.
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