JANUARY 2, 2004, STS. BASIL AND GREGORY NAZIANZAN- HOMILY: 1JOHN 2:22-28; JOHN 1:19-28.
LET WHAT YOU HEARD IN THE BEGINNING REMAIN IN YOUR HEARTS…. THEN YOU IN YOUR TURN WILL REMAIN IN THE SON AND IN THE FATHER. This from St. John’s first epistle states a principle that guided the lives of the two holy Doctors of the Church whom we commemorate in today’s liturgy. We owe them a great weight of thanks for their affirming and preserving the true faith in the Trinity. Rightly to grasp something of the anguish, energy, struggle, humiliation and grief that each of these Bishops endured in their efforts to affirm and defend the true Catholic faith requires a detailed knowledge of the history of the fourth century Church. When we read the personal letters of Basil, who was called “The Great” even in his lifetime, after having learned what the history books tell us of his strength of character and courage we gain a very different view of his own experience and temptations. Far from feeling he was in control readily awed and dominated his opponents, which is the image conveyed by nearly all the histories of the time, he knew the depths of discouragement as he exercised his ministry against overwhelming opposition. Here is one instance among others that give expression to his views. It occurs in a letter to a priest (Ep. 113, Loeb ed, 223).
The spirit of the times is much inclined to the destruction of the churches, and we have known this for a long time. As for the establishment of the Church, the correction of errors, sympathy for the brethren who are weak and protection of those who are sound- of these things not one! Nay there is neither remedy nor cure for the disease which is already upon us, nor means of precaution against that which we await…. In such times as these, therefore, there is need of great diligence and much care that the Churches may in some way be benefited.
In another letter we glimpse something of his own evaluation of his character.
For even if others are powerful, and great, and confident in themselves, I, on the contrary, are nothing and worth nothing … I know very clearly that I need the help of each and every brother more than one hand needs the other… how can I reason that I of myself suffice to cope with the difficulties of life? (Ep 97, Loeb, 163).
Yet, he never yielded to discouragement; rather, he took initiatives of various kinds and repeatedly, seeking out openings for constructive action, remaining firm yet remarkably supple in devising remedies to evils. He tells us of his attitude at a particularly critical time.
I have determined to neglect no effort whatever, not to omit anything as to humble to say or do, not to take into account the length of any journey, and not to shrink before any irksome thing, if so I may obtain the rewards of peace-making…. If anyone pulls in an opposite direction I will not be moved (Ep 97,165).
As we now know, Basil’s strenuous efforts, which contributed to his early death- he did not live to be fifty- were among the most fruitful of pastoral initiatives. Not only do Byzantine monks consider him their patron and legislator, St. Benedict himself took him as a teacher and recommended him to his disciples. More importantly still, with his friend, Gregory of Nazianzus, he assured that the divinity of the Holy Spirit, denied by many influential bishops, was preserved in the Church.
Gregory too had to pay a heavy price for his efforts to elaborate and preserve the true faith. Here is how he begins a letter to a fellow Bishop a few years after Basil’s death.
Our situation, man of God, is not good; the evil sentiments that wax strong among those who provoke an unjust and groundless hatred against me are no longer a matter of suspicions founded on suppositions but are openly bandied about as if a noble cause…. Respect has disappeared from our epoch, truth a fled far from us,… even the name of peace no longer has place with us. (Ep249.1,and 3, Saint Gregroire de Nazianze, Les Lettres II, tr. Paul Gallay, Paris, 1967, p.138)
Gregory, though much more sensitive and vulnerable than Basil, nonetheless continued his ministry and his search for union with God to the end. It was in the face of strong, threatening opposition that he preached the five Orations on the Trinity that gave the most convincing expression to the doctrine of the Trinity. His doctrine became classic, so that he came to be known as Gregory the Theologian, that is the one who spoke truly of the Trinity. The more contemplative, and naturally congenial inclination of Gregory’s personality finds expression in one of his earliest Orations. It explains the source of his strength- his inner life in the Spirit.
Nothing seems to me so beautiful as to close the door of sense, to go out from the flesh and the world, to gather oneself within, to have no contact with anything human save for what is absolutely essential, to occupy oneself with oneself and with God, so as to live above visible realities in order to preserve in oneself divine reflections without any change or admixture of any of the misleading imprints of the things of this world. In this way we are and constantly become a true, immaculate mirror of God and of divine things, the while adding light to light, substituting clearness for confusion. Then already we enjoy, by hope, the good things of the future and accompany the angels in their round, though we remain on earth after having been elevated by the Spirit.- If any of you is possessed by this desire, he knows what I am trying to say. (Discourse 2.7, in Saint Gregoire De Naziane, Jean Bernardi, Paris1995, p. 7 [my translation from French].
May these two holy men of God, associated in an intimate and noble friendship in life, pray for us that we too prove faithful in our own vocation as we seek the same goal that motivated them: the loving knowledge of “God the Father, in the Son through the Holy Spirit.”+ Amen.ù
[+ St. Basil introduced this ancient doxology into the liturgy of his day to emphasize the equality of the three persons and their unity as he notes in his Traite Sur Le Saint-Esprit, Sources Chr.17, Paris 1950, pp.109-110.]
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
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