January 10, 2018

Eight Letters of St. Gregory the Theologian to St. Gregory of Nyssa

Ep. I.

(Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, was a younger brother of Basil the Great. Ordained a Reader at an early age he grew tired of his vocation, and became a professor of Rhetoric. This gave scandal in the Church and occasioned much grief to his friends. Gregory of Nazianzus, wrote him the following letter of remonstrance, which was not without effect, for shortly afterwards he gave up his secular avocation, and retired to the Monastery which his brother Basil had founded in Pontus. Here he spent several years in the study of Holy Scripture and the best Commentators.)

There is one good point in my character, and I will boast myself of one point out of many. I am equally vexed with myself and my friends over a bad plan. Since, then, all are friends and kinsfolk who live according to God, and walk by the same Gospel, why should you not hear from me in plain words what all men are saying in whispers? They do not approve your inglorious glory (to borrow a phrase from your own art), and your gradual descent to the lower life, and your ambition, the worst of demons, according to Euripides. For what has happened to you, O wisest of men, and for what do you condemn yourself, that you have cast away the sacred and delightful books which you used once to read to the people (do not be ashamed to hear this), or have hung them up over the chimney, as men do in winter with rudders and hoes, and have applied yourself to salt and bitter ones, and preferred to be called a Professor of Rhetoric rather than of Christianity? I, thank God, would rather be the latter than the former. Do not, my dear friend, do not let this be longer the case, but, though it is full late, become sober again, and come to yourself once more, and make your apology to the faithful, and to God, and to His Altars and Sacraments, from which you have withdrawn yourself. And do not say to me in proud rhetorical style, What, was I not a Christian when I practiced rhetoric? Was I not a believer when I was engaged among the boys? And perhaps you will call God to witness. No, my friend, not as thoroughly as you ought to have been, even if I grant it you in part. What of the offense to others given by your present employment — to others who are prone naturally to evil— and of the opportunity afforded them both to think and to speak the worst of you? Falsely, I grant, but where was the necessity? For a man lives not for himself alone but also for his neighbor; nor is it enough to persuade yourself, you must persuade others also. If you were to practice boxing in public, or to give and receive blows in the theater, or to writhe and twist yourself shamefully, would you speak of yourself as having a temperate soul? Such an argument does not befit a wise man; it is frivolous to accept it. If you make a change I shall rejoice even now, said one of the Pythagorean philosophers, lamenting the fall of a friend; but, he wrote, if not you are dead to me. But I will not yet say this for your sake. Being a friend, he became an enemy, yet still a friend, as the Tragedy says. But I shall be grieved (to speak gently), if you do neither yourself see what is right, which is the highest method of all, nor will follow the advice of others, which is the next. Thus far my counsel. Forgive me that my friendship for you makes me grieve, and kindles me both on your behalf and on behalf of the whole priestly Order, and I may add on that of all Christians. And if I may pray with you or for you, may God who quickens the dead aid your weakness.


(When St. Gregory was consecrated Bishop of Nyssa the Imperial Throne was occupied by Valens, an ardent Arian, whose mind was bent on the destruction of the Nicene Faith. He appointed, with this object, one Demosthenes, a former clerk of the Imperial Kitchen, to be Vicar of the civil Diocese of Pontus. An old quarrel with Basil had made this man unfriendly to Gregory, and after persecuting him in various small ways for some time he procured, in 375 AD, the summoning of a Synod to enquire into some allegations of irregularity in his consecration, and to try Gregory on some frivolous charges of malversation of Church funds. Gregory was unable to attend this Synod, which met at Ancyra, on account of an attack of pleurisy; and another was summoned to meet at Nyssa itself. Gregory however refused to appear, and was deposed as contumacious. Thereupon Valens banished him, and he seems to have fallen into very low spirits, almost into despondency at the apparent triumph of the heretical party. The three letters which follow throw some light upon his state at this time. They were written in answer to letters of his now lost, and their object was to comfort him in his trouble and to encourage him to take heart again in the hope of a good day coming. This more cheerful tone was justified by the event, for on the death of Valens, in 378 AD, the exiled Bishops were restored by Gratian, and Gregory was replaced in his Episcopal Throne, to the great joy of the faithful of his Diocese.)

Do not let your troubles distress you too much. For the less we grieve over things, the less grievous they are. It is nothing strange that the heretics have thawed, and are taking courage from the springtime, and creeping out of their holes, as you write. They will hiss for a short time, I know, and then will hide themselves again, overcome both by the truth and the times, and all the more so the more we commit the whole matter to God.


As to the subject of your letter, these are my sentiments. I am not angry at being overlooked, but I am glad when I am honored. The one is my own desert, the other is a proof of your respect. Pray for me. Excuse this short letter, for anyhow, though it is short, it is longer than silence.


Although I am at home, my love is expatriated with you, for affection makes us have all things common. Trusting in the mercy of God, and in your prayers, I have great hopes that all will turn out according to your mind, and that the hurricane will be turned into a gentle breeze, and that God will give you this reward for your orthodoxy, that you will overcome your opponents. Most of all I long to see you shortly, and to have a good time with you, as I pray. But if you delay owing to the pressure of affairs, at any rate cheer me by a letter, and do not disdain to tell me all about your circumstances, and to pray for me, as you are accustomed to do. May God grant you health and good spirits in all circumstances — you who are the common prop of the whole Church.


(Basil the Great died Jan. 1, 379. Gregory of Nazianzus was prevented by very serious illness from attending his funeral, and therefore wrote as follows to Gregory of Nyssa.)

This, then, was also reserved for my sad life, to hear of the death of Basil, and the departure of that holy soul, which has gone from us that it may be with the Lord, for which he had been preparing himself all his life. And among all the other losses I have had to endure this is the greatest, that by reason of the bodily sickness from which I am still suffering and in great danger, I cannot kiss that holy dust, or be with you to enjoy the consolations of a just philosophy, and to comfort our common friends. But to see the desolation of the Church, shorn of such a glory, and bereft of such a crown, is what no one, at least no one of any feeling, can bear to let his eyes look upon, or his ear hearken to. But you, I think, though you have many friends and will receive many words of condolence, yet will not derive comfort so much from any as from yourself and your memory of him; for you two were a pattern to all of philosophy, a kind of spiritual standard, both of discipline in prosperity, and of endurance in adversity; for philosophy bears prosperity with moderation and adversity with dignity. This is what I have to say to Your Excellency. But for myself who write so, what time or what words shall comfort me, except your company and conversation, which our blessed one has left me in place of all, that seeing his character in you as in a bright and shining mirror, I may think myself to possess him also!


You are distressed by your travels, and think yourself unsteady, like a stick carried along by a stream. But, my dear friend, you must not let yourself feel so at all. For the travels of the stick are involuntary, but your course is ordained by God, and your stability is in doing good to others, even though you are not fixed to a place; unless indeed one ought to find fault with the sun, for going about the world scattering his rays, and giving life to all things on which he shines; or, while praising the fixed stars, one should revile the planets, whose very wandering is harmonious.


(Gregory after his resignation of the Patriarchal See of Constantinople had retired to Nazianzus, and had been persuaded to undertake the administration of the diocese then vacant, until the vacancy should be filled. The Bishops of the Province wished him to retain it altogether, and therefore were in no hurry to proceed to election. At length however they yielded to the continually expressed wishes of Gregory and chose his cousin Eulalius. Soon however Gregory's enemies spread abroad a report that this election had been made against his wishes, and with the intention of unfairly ousting him from the administration of that Church. The following letter was written in consequence of this slander.)

Woe is me that my sojourning is prolonged, and, which is the greatest of my misfortunes, that war and dissensions are among us, and that we have not kept the peace which we received from our holy fathers. This I doubt not you will restore, in the power of the Spirit who upholds you and yours. But let no one, I beg, spread false reports about me and my lords the bishops, as though they had proclaimed another bishop in my place against my will. But being in great need, owing to my feeble health, and fearing the responsibility of a Church neglected, I asked this favor of them, which was not opposed to the Canon Law, and was a relief to me, that they would give a Pastor to the Church. He has been given to your prayers, a man worthy of your piety, and I now place him in your hands, the most reverend Eulalius, a bishop very dear to God, in whose arms I should like to die. If any be of opinion that it is not right to ordain another in the lifetime of a Bishop, let him know that he will not in this matter gain any hold upon us. For it is well known that I was appointed, not to Nazianzus, but to Sasima, although for a short time out of reverence for my father, I as a stranger undertook the government.

Ep. CXCVII. A Letter of Condolence on the Death of His Sister Theosevia.

(Some writers have imagined that Theosevia (Theosebia) was the wife of Gregory of Nyssa, but there is no evidence to show that he was ever married, though it is possible. The date of her death is uncertain, but it was probably subsequent to 381 AD. It would seem that the term "Consort" might have a general application to those who shared in the same work.)

I had started in all haste to go to you, and had got as far as Euphemias, when I was delayed by the festival which you are celebrating in honor of the Holy Martyrs; partly because I could not take part in it, owing to my bad health, partly because my coming at so unsuitable a time might be inconvenient to you. I had started partly for the sake of seeing you after so long, and partly that I might admire your patience and philosophy (for I had heard of it) at the departure of your holy and blessed sister, as a good and perfect man, a minister of God, who knows better than any the things both of God and man; and who regards as a very light thing that which to others would be most heavy, namely to have lived with such a soul, and to send her away and store her up in the safe garners, like a shock of the threshing floor gathered in due season, (Job 5:26) to use the words of Holy Scripture; and that in such time that she, having tasted the joys of life, escaped its sorrows through the shortness of her life; and before she had to wear mourning for you, was honored by you with that fair funeral honor which is due to such as she. I too, believe me, long to depart, if not as you do, which were much to say, yet only less than you. But what must we feel in presence of a long prevailing law of God which has now taken my Theosevia (for I call her mine because she lived a godly life; for spiritual kindred is better than bodily), Theosevia, the glory of the Church, the adornment of Christ, the helper of our generation, the hope of woman; Theosevia, the most beautiful and glorious among all the beauty of the Brethren; Theosevia, truly sacred, truly consort of a priest, and of equal honor and worthy of the Great Mysteries, Theosevia, whom all future time shall receive, resting on immortal pillars, that is, on the souls of all who have known her now, and of all who shall be hereafter. And do not wonder that I often invoke her name. For I rejoice even in the remembrance of the blessed one. Let this, a great deal in few words, be her epitaph from me, and my word of condolence for you, though you yourself are quite able to console others in this way through your philosophy in all things. Our meeting (which I greatly long for) is prevented by the reason I mentioned. But we pray with one another as long as we are in the world, until the common end, to which we are drawing near, overtake us. Wherefore we must bear all things, since we shall not for long have either to rejoice or to suffer.