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January 10, 2014

Saint Gregory of Nyssa as a Model for our Lives

St. Gregory of Nyssa (Feast Day - January 10)

By Protopresbyter Fr. George Papavarnavas

Saint Gregory was Bishop of Nyssa, a small Diocese, which, however, showed itself to be great and glorious by the holiness of his deeds. He was born in Neocaesarea of Pontus in 335 of pious parents, Basil and Emmelia. He studied in Neocaesarea and Caesarea. Due to the death of his father he was unable to continue his studies in Schools outside of his homeland, like his brother Basil the Great did. He studied under the sophist Libanius, but a systematic education he received by his brother Basil the Great, his mother Emmelia, his sister Macrina, and his grandmother Macrina who was a student of Saint Gregory the Wonderworker, who had appeared in a vision to Saint Gregory of Nyssa and recited to him the Symbol of Faith (Creed) which he drafted.

He was married to Theosevia, whose premature repose he faced with great courage.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa was a strong personality. He received a place at the Second Ecumenical Synod, which took place in Constantinople in 381, and because of his theological training and mastery of rhetoric he exposed the teachings of the Pneumatomachi and completed the Symbol of Faith drafted by the First Ecumenical Synod, adding articles on the Holy Spirit and the rest. He was a rapporteur at the Synod and his words, as well as his general presence, caused a great impression. Emperor Theodosius the Great, expressing admiration and appreciation, called him a "pillar of Orthodoxy". Four centuries later at the Seventh Ecumenical Synod, "to show the integrity of his report and the support of the Orthodox faith", he was called the "Father of Fathers". It is a rare honorary title.

He was exiled by the Arians, but after the death of the Arian emperor Valens in 378, and the assumption of power by the Orthodox emperor Gratian, he returned again to his Diocese. But his joy was succeeded by grief due to the death of his brother Basil.

He was "perfected in peace" in the year 395.

He bequeathed to us a rich literary work with texts that are hermeneutical, doctrinal, catechetical, ethical, celebratory, encomiastic, funerary and a memorial for his brother Basil. Among his most important works are his discourses "On Virginity", "Life of the Prophet Moses" (which is actually a treatise on the life of virtue and perfection), the life of his sister the venerable Macrina,the "Great Catechism", etc.

The life and deeds of Saint Gregory give us the opportunity to emphasize the following:

First, the fourth century is called the golden age of the Church because of the great Fathers who shined then in the spiritual firmament. This does not mean that there were not any problems then, or even serious ones, such as the accession of Bishops who belonged to the heresy of Arius, who caused schisms and divisions among believers. Rather it was because of the persecution of Orthodox Bishops, who were exiled by Arian state rulers, and their positions were occupied by submissive instruments of worldly power, people inferior to the circumstances. Characteristic is what Basil the Great writes in his letter to the exiled Bishop Eusebius of Samosata: "And now the very title of bishop has been conferred on miserable slaves ... whoever has appointed him [a bishop] has sent into the Churches a poor means of aiding his own entry into the life to come. They have expelled my brother from Nyssa, and into his place have introduced hardly a man - a mere scamp worth only an obol or two, but, so far as regards the ruin of the faith, a match for those who have put him where he is" (Letter 239).

But it was a great blessing at that time to have as a presence at the helm of the Church persons of such spiritual stature such as Basil the Great, Saint Gregory the Theologian, Athanasius the Great and Saint Gregory of Nyssa among many others, because they have contributed greatly to avert a definitive schism between the faithful and gave a proper resolution to the problems that arose, without serious side effects on the spiritual health and salvation of the faithful.

Second, Basil the Great, who was responsible for placing his brother Saint Gregory of Nyssa in his Diocese, received complaints that this Diocese was too small for a Bishop of the spiritual stature of Saint Gregory. Basil the Great, in a letter to Saint Eusebius of Samosata, responded by writing the following memorable words: "I, too, was anxious that our brother Gregory should have the government of a Church commensurate with his abilities; and that would have been the whole Church under the sun gathered into one place. But, as this is impossible, let him be a bishop, not deriving dignity from his see, but conferring dignity on his see by himself. For it is the part of a really great man not only to be sufficient for great things, but by his own influence to make small things great" (Letter 98).

Worthy and important people do not receive value from their office, but quite the opposite, by their personality and prestige they give value to their office. Otherwise the important positions, and any position, are not able to honor the man if he is not worthy of the honor.

The most serious thing is that he who does not have even the largest value commensurate with the office he holds, sooner or later will be shamed, because offices (especially that of a Bishop, and Clergy in general) have the characteristic feature of not covering up shortcomings, errors and passions, but they reveal them.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "ΑΓΙΟΣ ΓΡΗΓΟΡΙΟΣ ΝΥΣΣΗΣ", January 2005. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.