Today – January 2 – we celebrate Sts. Gregory Nazianzen and Basil the Great.
We’ll start with Basil:
Let us remember today one of the great Fathers of the Church, St Basil, described by Byzantine liturgical texts as “a luminary of the Church”.
He was an important Bishop in the fourth century to whom the entire Church of the East, and likewise the Church of the West, looks with admiration because of the holiness of his life, the excellence of his teaching and the harmonious synthesis of his speculative and practical gifts.
He was born in about 330 A.D. into a family of saints, “a true domestic Church”, immersed in an atmosphere of deep faith. He studied with the best teachers in Athens and Constantinople.
Unsatisfied with his worldly success and realizing that he had frivolously wasted much time on vanities, he himself confessed: “One day, like a man roused from deep sleep, I turned my eyes to the marvellous light of the truth of the Gospel…, and I wept many tears over my miserable life” (cf. Letter 223: PG 32, 824a).
Attracted by Christ, Basil began to look and listen to him alone (cf. Moralia, 80, 1: PG 31, 860bc). He devoted himself with determination to the monastic life through prayer, meditation on the Sacred Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers of the Church, and the practice of charity (cf. Letters 2, 22), also following the example of his sister, St Macrina, who was already living the ascetic life of a nun. He was then ordained a priest and finally, in the year 370, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia in present-day Turkey.
Through his preaching and writings, he carried out immensely busy pastoral, theological and literary activities.
With a wise balance, he was able to combine service to souls with dedication to prayer and meditation in solitude. Availing himself of his personal experience, he encouraged the foundation of numerous “fraternities”, in other words, communities of Christians consecrated to God, which he visited frequently
Christians in particular, conforming their lives to the Gospel, recognize that all people are brothers and sisters; that life is a stewardship of the goods received from God, which is why each one is responsible for the other, and whoever is rich must be as it were an “executor of the orders of God the Benefactor” (Hom 6 de avaritia: PG 32, 1181-1196). We must all help one another and cooperate as members of one body (Ep 203, 3).
And on this point, he used courageous, strong words in his homilies. Indeed, anyone who desires to love his neighbour as himself, in accordance with God’s commandment, “must possess no more than his neighbour” (Hom. in divites: PG 31, 281b).
In times of famine and disaster, the holy Bishop exhorted the faithful with passionate words “not to be more cruel than beasts… by taking over what people possess in common or by grabbing what belongs to all (Hom. tempore famis: PG 31, 325a).
Basil’s profound thought stands out in this evocative sentence: “All the destitute look to our hands just as we look to those of God when we are in need”.
Therefore, Gregory of Nazianzus’ praise after Basil’s death was well-deserved. He said: “Basil convinces us that since we are human beings, we must neither despise men nor offend Christ, the common Head of all, with our inhuman behaviour towards people; rather, we ourselves must benefit by learning from the misfortunes of others and must lend God our compassion, for we are in need of mercy” (Gregory Nazianzus, Orationes 43, 63; PG 36, 580b).
These words are very timely. We see that St Basil is truly one of the Fathers of the Church’s social doctrine.
Furthermore, Basil reminds us that to keep alive our love for God and for men, we need the Eucharist, the appropriate food for the baptized, which can nourish the new energies that derive from Baptism (cf. De Baptismo 1, 3: SC 357, 192).
It is a cause of immense joy to be able to take part in the Eucharist (cf. Moralia 21, 3: PG 31, 741a), instituted “to preserve unceasingly the memory of the One who died and rose for us” (Moralia 80, 22: PG 31, 869b).
The Eucharist, an immense gift of God, preserves in each one of us the memory of the baptismal seal and makes it possible to live the grace of Baptism to the full and in fidelity.
For this reason, the holy Bishop recommended frequent, even daily, Communion: “Communicating even daily, receiving the Holy Body and Blood of Christ, is good and useful; for he said clearly: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life’ (Jn 6: 54). So who would doubt that communicating continuously with life were not living in fullness?” (Ep. 93: PG 32, 484b).
The Eucharist, in a word, is necessary for us if we are to welcome within us true life, eternal life (cf. Moralia 21, 1: PG 31, 737c).
Finally, Basil was of course also concerned with that chosen portion of the People of God, the youth, society’s future. He addressed a Discourse to them on how to benefit from the pagan culture of that time.
He recognized with great balance and openness that examples of virtue can be found in classical Greek and Latin literature. Such examples of upright living can be helpful to young Christians in search of the truth and the correct way of living (cf. Ad Adolescentes 3).
Therefore, one must take from the texts by classical authors what is suitable and conforms with the truth: thus, with a critical and open approach – it is a question of true and proper “discernment”- young people grow in freedom.
With the famous image of bees that gather from flowers only what they need to make honey, Basil recommends: “Just as bees can take nectar from flowers, unlike other animals which limit themselves to enjoying their scent and colour, so also from these writings… one can draw some benefit for the spirit. We must use these books, following in all things the example of bees. They do not visit every flower without distinction, nor seek to remove all the nectar from the flowers on which they alight, but only draw from them what they need to make honey, and leave the rest. And if we are wise, we will take from those writings what is appropriate for us, and conforms to the truth, ignoring the rest” (Ad Adolescentes 4).
Basil recommended above all that young people grow in virtue, in the right way of living: “While the other goods… pass from one to the other as in playing dice, virtue alone is an inalienable good and endures throughout life and after death” (Ad Adolescentes5).
Dear brothers and sisters, I think one can say that this Father from long ago also speaks to us and tells us important things.
In the first place, attentive, critical and creative participation in today’s culture.
Then, social responsibility: this is an age in which, in a globalized world, even people who are physically distant are really our neighbours; therefore, friendship with Christ, the God with the human face.
And, lastly, knowledge and recognition of God the Creator, the Father of us all: only if we are open to this God, the common Father, can we build a more just and fraternal world.
Today, I would like to speak of his friend, Gregory Nazianzus; like Basil, he too was a native of Cappadocia. As a distinguished theologian, orator and champion of the Christian faith in the fourth century, he was famous for his eloquence, and as a poet, he also had a refined and sensitive soul.
Gregory was born into a noble family in about 330 A.D. and his mother consecrated him to God at birth. After his education at home, he attended the most famous schools of his time: he first went to Caesarea in Cappadocia, where he made friends with Basil, the future Bishop of that city, and went on to stay in other capitals of the ancient world, such as Alexandria, Egypt and in particular Athens, where once again he met Basil (cf. Orationes 43: 14-24; SC 384: 146-180).
Remembering this friendship, Gregory was later to write: “Then not only did I feel full of veneration for my great Basil because of the seriousness of his morals and the maturity and wisdom of his speeches, but he induced others who did not yet know him to be like him…. The same eagerness for knowledge motivated us…. This was our competition: not who was first but who allowed the other to be first. It seemed as if we had one soul in two bodies” (Orationes 43: 16, 20; SC 384: 154-156, 164].
These words more or less paint the self-portrait of this noble soul. Yet, one can also imagine how this man, who was powerfully cast beyond earthly values, must have suffered deeply for the things of this world.
On his return home, Gregory received Baptism and developed an inclination for monastic life: solitude as well as philosophical and spiritual meditation fascinated him.
He himself wrote: “Nothing seems to me greater than this: to silence one’s senses, to emerge from the flesh of the world, to withdraw into oneself, no longer to be concerned with human things other than what is strictly necessary; to converse with oneself and with God, to lead a life that transcends the visible; to bear in one’s soul divine images, ever pure, not mingled with earthly or erroneous forms; truly to be a perfect mirror of God and of divine things, and to become so more and more, taking light from light…; to enjoy, in the present hope, the future good, and to converse with angels; to have already left the earth even while continuing to dwell on it, borne aloft by the spirit” (Orationes 2: 7; SC 247: 96).
As he confides in his autobiography (cf. Carmina [historica] 2: 1, 11, De Vita Sua 340-349; PG 37: 1053), he received priestly ordination with a certain reluctance for he knew that he would later have to be a Bishop, to look after others and their affairs, hence, could no longer be absorbed in pure meditation.
However, he subsequently accepted this vocation and took on the pastoral ministry in full obedience, accepting, as often happened to him in his life, to be carried by Providence where he did not wish to go (cf. Jn 21: 18).
Gregory reminds us that as human persons, we must show solidarity to one another. He writes: “”We are all one in the Lord’ (cf. Rom 12: 5), rich and poor, slaves and free, healthy and sick alike; and one is the head from which all derive: Jesus Christ. And as with the members of one body, each is concerned with the other, and all with all”.
He then concludes, referring to the sick and to people in difficulty: “This is the one salvation for our flesh and our soul: showing them charity” (Orationes 14, 8 De Pauperum Amore: PG 35, 868ab).
Gregory emphasizes that man must imitate God’s goodness and love. He therefore recommends: “If you are healthy and rich, alleviate the need of whoever is sick and poor; if you have not fallen, go to the aid of whoever has fallen and lives in suffering; if you are glad, comfort whoever is sad; if you are fortunate, help whoever is smitten with misfortune. Give God proof of your gratitude for you are one who can benefit and not one who needs to be benefited…. Be rich not only in possessions but also in piety; not only in gold but in virtue, or rather, in virtue alone. Outdo your neighbour’s reputation by showing yourself to be kinder than all; make yourself God for the unfortunate, imitating God’s mercy” (Orationes 14, 26 De Pauperum Amore: PG 35, 892bc).
Gregory teaches us first and foremost the importance and necessity of prayer. He says: “It is necessary to remember God more often than one breathes” (Orationes 27, 4: PG 250, 78), because prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with our thirst. God is thirsting for us to thirst for him (cf. Orationes 40, 27: SC 358, 260).
In prayer, we must turn our hearts to God, to consign ourselves to him as an offering to be purified and transformed. In prayer we see all things in the light of Christ, we let our masks fall and immerse ourselves in the truth and in listening to God, feeding the fire of love.
In a poem which is at the same time a meditation on the purpose of life and an implicit invocation to God, Gregory writes: “You have a task, my soul, a great task if you so desire. Scrutinize yourself seriously, your being, your destiny; where you come from and where you must rest; seek to know whether it is life that you are living or if it is something more. You have a task, my soul, so purify your life: Please consider God and his mysteries, investigate what existed before this universe and what it is for you, where you come from and what your destiny will be. This is your task, my soul; therefore, purify your life” (Carmina [historica] 2, 1, 78:PG 37, 1425-1426).
The holy Bishop continuously asked Christ for help, to be raised and set on his way: “I have been let down, O my Christ, by my excessive presumption: from the heights, I have fallen very low. But lift me now again so that I may see that I have deceived myself; if again I trust too much in myself, I shall fall immediately and the fall will be fatal” (Carmina [historica] 2, 1, 67: PG 37, 1408).
So it was that Gregory felt the need to draw close to God in order to overcome his own weariness. He experienced the impetus of the soul, the vivacity of a sensitive spirit and the instability of transient happiness.
For him, in the drama of a life burdened by the knowledge of his own weakness and wretchedness, the experience of God’s love always gained the upper hand.
You have a task, soul, St Gregory also says to us, the task of finding the true light, of finding the true nobility of your life. And your life is encountering God, who thirsts for our thirst.