Living Icons – St. Basil and St. Gregory

St. Gregory of Nazianzus was a long-time friend of St. Basil of Caesarea, (and interestingly, they are the traditional authors of the two most commonly used Coptic liturgies). They met as students in Athens as young men, and so began a friendship which would see them banding together in opposition of Church corruption, Arianism and Roman emperors, as all of these threatened to tear the Church apart. A rather unfortunate dispute arose between the two towards the end of Basil’s life, but they seem to have made up with one before Basil died in 379 AD. Gregory subsequently wrote a glowing eulogy for Basil, which (to my mind at least) is one of the most powerful pieces of Christian literature ever written. Why? I’ll let Gregory’s flowing prose and uncompromising style speak for itself – the following passage is the source of a story for which Basil has become especially famous. Some context first though: Basil’s refusal to accept Emperor Valens’ Arianism (understandably) attracted the emperor’s ire. In this passage, Basil has been summoned to appear before the Emperor’s prefect, called Modestus, and give an account for his opposition of the Emperor. But Basil, being Basil, is not easily intimidated …

(Look out especially for Basil’s now famous riposte, “Perhaps you have never before met a bishop”, rendered rather weakly in this translation. He seems to have been a rather witty fellow.)

Byzantine icon of St. Basil of Caesarea and St. Gregory of Nazianzus

Though [Modestus] raged against the Church, and assumed a lion-like aspect, and roared like a lion till most men dared not approach him, yet our noble prelate [Basil] was brought into or rather entered his court, as if bidden to a feast, instead of to a trial. How can I fully describe, either the arrogance of the prefect or the prudence with which it was met by the Saint. What is the meaning, Sir Basil, he said, addressing him by name, and not as yet deigning to term him Bishop, of your daring, as no other dares, to resist and oppose so great a potentate?In what respect? said our noble champion, and in what does my rashness consist? For this I have yet to learn.In refusing to respect the religion of your Sovereign, when all others have yielded and submitted themselves?Because, said he, this is not the will of my real Sovereign; nor can I, who am the creature of God, and bidden myself to be God, submit to worship any creature.And what do we, said the prefect, seem to you to be? Are we, who give you this injunction, nothing at all? What do you say to this? Is it not a great thing to be ranged with us as your associates?You are, I will not deny it, said he, a prefect, and an illustrious one, yet not of more honour than God. And to be associated with you is a great thing, certainly; for you are yourself the creature of God; but so it is to be associated with any other of my subjects. For faith, and not personal importance, is the distinctive mark of Christianity.

49. Then indeed the prefect became excited, and rose from his seat, boiling with rage, and making use of harsher language.What? said he, have you no fear of my authority? Fear of what? said Basil, How could it affect me?Of what? Of any one of the resources of my power.What are these? said Basil, pray, inform me.Confiscation, banishment, torture, death.Have you no other threat? said he, for none of these can reach me. How indeed is that? said the prefect. Because, he replied, a man who has nothing, is beyond the reach of confiscation; unless you demand my tattered rags, and the few books, which are my only possessions. Banishment is impossible for me, who am confined by no limit of place, counting my own neither the land where I now dwell, nor all of that into which I may be hurled; or, rather, counting it all God’s, whose guest and dependent I am. As for tortures, what hold can they have upon one whose body has ceased to be? Unless you mean the first stroke, for this alone is in your power. Death is my benefactor, for it will send me the sooner to God, for Whom I live, and exist, and have all but died, and to Whom I have long been hastening.

50. Amazed at this language, the prefect said, No one has ever yet spoken thus, and with such boldness, to Modestus.Why, perhaps, said Basil, you have not met with a Bishop, or in his defence of such interests he would have used precisely the same language. For we are modest in general, and submissive to every one, according to the precept of our law. We may not treat with haughtiness even any ordinary person, to say nothing of so great a potentate. But where the interests of God are at stake, we care for nothing else, and make these our sole object. Fire and sword and wild beasts, and rakes which tear the flesh, we revel in, and fear them not. You may further insult and threaten us, and do whatever you will, to the full extent of your power. The Emperor himself may hear this— that neither by violence nor persuasion will you bring us to make common cause with impiety, not even though your threats become still more terrible.

51. At the close of this colloquy, the prefect, having been convinced by the attitude of Basil, that he was absolutely impervious to threats and influence, dismissed him from the court, his former threatening manner being replaced by somewhat of respect and deference. He himself with all speed obtained an audience of the Emperor, and said: We have been worsted, Sire, by the prelate of this Church. He is superior to threats, invincible in argument, uninfluenced by persuasion. We must make trial of some more feeble character; and in this case resort to open violence, or submit to the disregard of our threatenings. Hereupon the Emperor, forced by the praises of Basil to condemn his own conduct (for even an enemy can admire a man’s excellence), would not allow violence to be used against him: and, like iron, which is softened by fire, yet still remains iron, though turned from threatening to admiration, would not enter into communion with him, being prevented by shame from changing his course, but sought to justify his conduct by the most plausible excuse he could, as the sequel will show.

After this remarkable encounter, the Emperor decides to make peace with Basil by personally attending his liturgy. According to Gregory however, he is so overcome by the power of the liturgical service, and the prophetic and priestly aura of Basil who stood lost in prayer before the Altar, that he was barely able to keep on his feet. This entire scene is a rather confronting testament to the sense of power and mystery with which ancient Christians viewed the liturgy, a sense which we seem to have lost somewhat nowadays.

52. For he entered the Church attended by the whole of his train; it was the festival of the Epiphany, and the Church was crowded, and, by taking his place among the people, he made a profession of unity. The occurrence is not to be lightly passed over. Upon his entrance he was struck by the thundering roll of the Psalms, by the sea of heads of the congregation, and by the angelic rather than human order which pervaded the sanctuary and its precincts: while Basil presided over his people, standing erect, as the Scripture says of Samuel, with body and eyes and mind undisturbed, as if nothing new had happened, but fixed upon God and the sanctuary, as if, so to say, he had been a statue, while his ministers stood around him in fear and reverence. At this sight, and it was indeed a sight unparalleled, overcome by human weakness, his eyes were affected with dimness and giddiness, his mind with dread. This was as yet unnoticed by most people. But when he had to offer the gifts at the Table of God, which he must needs do himself, since no one would, as usual, assist him, because it was uncertain whether Basil would admit him, his feelings were revealed. For he was staggering, and had not some one in the sanctuary reached out a hand to steady his tottering steps, he would have sunk to the ground in a lamentable fall. So much for this.

Neither Gregory nor Basil were perfect men, as I’m sure both of them would have heartily agreed. It is hard for us, with our modern eyes, to look upon Basil’s rivalry with his fellow bishop Anthimus, or Gregory’s attitude to his parish in Sasima without feeling that these men could probably have acted better in such situations. And perhaps they could have, it’s not ours to judge them (although in both their defences, they seem to have had good reasons for their actions, or at least circumstances which make their actions understandable).

But there is, I think, a powerful and undeniable sincerity to both their lives which rather outshines their very human indiscretions. Both of them gave away the vast majority of what they had inherited (which was quite a lot in both cases; they were both from wealthy families) and lived in relative poverty. Basil showed a consistent, and in some ways revolutionary, care for the ministry of the poor and friendless; he even opened an institution which came to be called the ‘Basiliad’, a house of care and shelter where the impoverished were cared for by monks and nuns. It was so popular that people used to call it the ‘New Town’, because the poor seemed to have started their own little city around the Basiliad. Neither Basil nor Gregory seem to have been the sort of men who were in the Church for selfish reasons. Yes, they may have occasionally been carried away by the heat of contemporary Church controversies (the stakes were after all, rather high), and yes, they may have acted rather humanly on a number of occasions, when pride or cowardice or anger overtook them. None of us can claim to have been immune from such faults, and it is impossible (and not at all our place in any event) to justify or condemn their actions from our removed perspective. Nor would they really care if we did – they would be (and probably are) telling us to stop looking at them and start looking at Christ. Whatever vices occasionally overtook them, it is very hard to deny that both of them cared deeply for Christ, His Church and its children; and that they cared for these things more than they cared for their own prestige, health or happiness.

There is nothing about Orthodox sainthood which demands that we ignore the shortcomings of saints. As saints though, we ought to be able to see something of Christ reflected in them. The  lives of both these men, full of sincerity, self-sacrifice, intellectual vision and genuine love for the less fortunate, provide both a powerful example for us, and a reflection of Christ as an active, living force in history. What made these two rich, carefree men give up everything to immerse themselves in poverty and a Church beset by persecutions, corruption and confusion? In admiring their virtues, we are not really admiring St. Basil and St. Gregory, but the Christ who lived (and very probably still lives) in them. And I’m sure they would have it no other way.


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