Today’s feast day celebrates the friendship of two outstanding saints of the fourth century: Basil, surnamed ‘the Great’, and Gregory of Nazianzen, in present-day Turkey.
There were many similarities in their lives. They both came from holy and scholarly Christian families, where their parents and siblings were also saintly, learned in theology and well esteemed in the local church.
A word about Basil, first. By nature studious, he distinguished himself in literature, rhetoric and philosophy as a young man. His sister, St Macrina, convinced him to turn his energies to things spiritual: “On reading the Gospel, I realized that perfection consists in giving away one’s wealth to the poor, and refusing to be distracted by earthly success,” he said. One of Basil’s innovations was creating the basilios, a building complex, both a shelter for the poor and the diseased, as well as a training school for the unskilled. He used the wealth of his family to support this institution.
Even more, Basil laid down a set of norms for hermits and monks, whose numbers were growing all over Palestine, Mesopotamia and Egypt: “work, study and pray”, he taught. The Orthodox Church considers him the ‘Father of Eastern Monasticism’, antedating St Benedict by almost three centuries.
Gregory of Nazianzen, Basil’s close friend, was a scholar like him. Both of them spent their youth as hermits, but after some years withdrew from the monastery, and became renown as priest theologians. Gregory particularly, wrote so eloquently on the Holy Trinity in the light of the Nicene Creed, that the Greek Church calls him ‘the Divine’, a title shared by no other theologian save the Apostle St John.
Gregory was later installed as patriarch of Constantinople, the capital of the empire, and the hotbed of the Arian heresy. By his preaching, writing and his exemplary life, Gregory withstood these enemies of the Church, and had the satisfaction of seeing the second ecumenical council called at Constantinople, a few years before he died.
Of his friendship with Basil he wrote: “The single object and ambition of our friendship was virtue, and hope of the blessings to come. We were always guided by God’s law, and encouraged each other in the life of virtue.”