297 The Other Great Saint Gregory

I mistakenly published this before it was completed. Please go to Post 297.2.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa

My problem (and possibly yours?) has been to keep all the Saint Gregorys straight. There are Saint Gregory of Nazianzus (usually called Saint Gregory the Theologian) ,Saint Gregory the Great (Pope of Rome, whom Orthodox title Saint Gregory the Dialogist, and who was so remarkably great that let’s do a Post on him sometime).Saint Gregory the Enlightner of Armenia, a couple of Saint Gregory the Wonderworkers,  Saint Gregory of Tours, Saint Gregory the Recluse of the Kiev Caves, Saint Gregory of Crete, Saint Gregory Palamas (who also deserves a Post), Saint Gregory of Wallachia, Saint Gregory II of Rome, Saint Gregory of Agrigentium, Saint Gregory of Decapolis, Saint Gregory founder of Gregoriou Monastery on Mount Athos, Saint Gregory of Omirits, Saint Gregory of Sinai, Saint Gregory the Hieromartyr of Tver,  Saint Gregory the Wonderworker of Vologda, Saint Gregory Domesticus of the Great Lavra on Mount Athos, Saint Gregory of Chandzoe in Georgia, Saint Gregory Archbishop of Alexandria, Saint Gregory the Iconographer of the Kiev Caves, Saint Gregory “the Byzantine” of Mount Athos.

Here we’ve spent most of the Post just listing them, all of who are worthy of study, and I suspect we’ve missed a bunch. Little wonder we get them confused.

In particular, after all these years I’m still forever mistaking Saint Gregory of Nyssa with Saint Gregory of Nazianzus. Both were remarkable fourth century bishops, theologians and stalwart defenders of the Orthodox Faith, who lived not far apart in Cappadocia in central Asia Minor. (What ever, by the way, was going on in the Fourth Century to produce all these phenomenal theologians: “The Three Hierarchs: Basil, John Chrysostom and Gregory the Theologian”, Church Fathers. I would like to know why we don’t commemorate”The Four Hierarchs”, for I think Gregory of Nyssa should be included among them. At the Seventh Ecumenical Council he was called “The Father of Fathers”.

Why the Other Great Saint Gregory is so great

I’m going to say only a little about his life here and concentrate instead on his words, which were multitudinous and magnificent. When I went online to search out his writings, I was just overwhelmed. If I live long enough I’ll try to read more of him.

His Life

There’s much to say here, as well. Here’s a short summary I wrote many years ago for a homily, which I guess will serve as well as anything else:

Gregory was born in about 335 into a family of saints: His brother was Saint Basil the Great, his sister Saint Macrina, another brother was Saint Peter, Bishop of Sebaste. Their grandmother was Saint Emilia who had guided the family through the Great Persecution. Gregory was well educated and taught rhetoric for a while. He was married. He was a poet, a profound theologian, a superb preacher. People loved him. However, he was not good at everything. The Church was then struggling with the Arian heresy, and his brother Archbishop Basil, whom he loved and admired, needed Orthodox bishops. So despite Gregory’s protestations that this was a mistake, he ordained him Bishop of Nyssa. People loved him. His sister Macrina wrote to him: “You are renowned both in the cities, and gatherings of people, and throughout entire districts. Churches ask you for help.”

However, Gregory was right. Making him bishop was a mistake. None of us does everything well, and Gregory handled finances so ineptly * that the Arians twice got him deposed.  He was not a crook; he was just a poor administrator.

  • Personal note to my wife. Does this remind you of any clergyman whom you know very well? 

Gregory was, I think, the only ancient author who wrote travelogues – about events, geography, places, nature, weather. He gloried in God’s created world.  Listen to his account of his return to Nyssa in 378:

There was a chill wind blowing through the clouds, bringing a drizzle which hit us with its dampness. The sky threatened such rain as no one had ever known and quick flashes of lightning, thunder and lightning in hurried succession, and all the mountains in front of us, behind us and on every side were shrouded with cloud… We were close to home when the cloud…suddenly emptied and because of the storm our entrance was very quiet; no one being aware of our coming.  But when we reached the [porch of the bishop’s palace]..the people poured out to meet us…  I know not how or why it came about but they were all there, round us so closely it was not easy to descend from the carriage…  they would have crushed us with excessive kindness and I was near fainting.  [Then] we saw a river of fire pouring into the church… the choirs of virgins carrying wax candles in their hands as they marched in file through the open doors of the church kindling a blaze of splendor.  Then I went into the church and rejoiced and wept with my people… (Epistle 3)  Gregory can make us feel as if we were there experiencing it with him. 

A year later his beloved brother Basil died. Gregory preached his funeral and was overwhelmed with grief. The next year his sister Macrina died. Gregory wrote a long and moving account of his last hours with her. Here is a small portion:

“Lest she should vex my soul she stilled her groans and made great efforts to hide, if possible, the difficulty of her breathing. And in every way she tried to be cheerful, both taking the lead herself in friendly talk, and giving us an opportunity by asking questions. When in the course of conversation mention was made of the great Basil, my soul was saddened and my face fell dejectedly. But so far was she from sharing in my affliction that, treating the mention of the saint as an occasion for yet loftier philosophy, she discussed various subjects, inquiring into human affairs and revealing in her conversation the divine purpose concealed in disasters. Besides this, she discussed the future life, as if inspired by the Holy Spirit, so that it almost seemed as if my soul were lifted by the help of her words away from mortal nature and placed within the heavenly sanctuary.   

Then for a while Gregory went for a while into what, I think, we would now call depression.

We don’t know what brought him out of it, but he emerged at a Synod in Antioch filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit.  For the rest of his life he wrote and taught prolifically promoting the Orthodox faith. He taught that life is a never-ending progression, that God never intended mankind to remain in Eden but to move on towards the Heavenly City “advancing from glory to glory”. He dared to hope that in the end all may be saved. 

Gregory was a major force at the Second Ecumenical Council in 381. Drawing on his brother Basil’s work, he was responsible for last portion of the Creed, beginning “And I believe in the Holy Spirit…”  He died in peace on January 10 a couple of years later. Gregory of Nyssa was one of the greatest theologians and writers the Church has ever produced. 

Kontakion of Saint Gregory of Nyssa

You kept watch with the eyes of your soul, holy bishop, revealing yourself as a watchful pastor for the world. With the staff of your wisdom and your fervent intercession, you drove away all heretics like wolves. You preserved your flock free from harm, most wise Gregory!

Teachings of Saint Gregory of Nyssa

It would take too much space here even to begin to list his many writings. Even choosing texts to include here has been extraordinarily difficult. In just a couple hours’ perusing, I collected over 3000 words of material worth sharing, and I’ve found it so hard to eliminate any. Holy Gregory, help! So I’m going to include almost all of them. Please read as many as you wish. I suspect you’ll find it hard to stop. I’ll include the sources – when I could find them

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“Concepts create idols; only wonder comprehends anything. People kill one another over idols. Wonder makes us fall to our knees.”

“Truly barren is a secular education. It is always in labor, but never gives birth.” 

“Be not anxious about what you have, but about what you are.”

“Christ is the artist, tenderly wiping away all the grime of sin that disfigures the human face and restoring God’s image to its full beauty.”

“Just as at sea those who are carried away from the direction of the harbor bring themselves back on course by a clear sign, on seeing a tall beacon light or some mountain peak coming into view, so Scripture may guide those adrift on the sea of the life back into the harbor of the divine will.” 

Here was his opinion about slavery:

“’I got me slave-girls and slaves.’ For what price, tell me? What did you find in existence worth as much as this human nature? What price did you put on rationality? How many obols did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God? How many staters did you get for selling that being shaped by God? God said, Let us make man in our own image and likeness. If he is in the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? Who is his seller? To God alone belongs this power; or, rather, not even to God himself. For his gracious gifts, it says, are irrevocable. God would not therefore reduce the human race to slavery, since He himself, when we had been enslaved to sin, spontaneously recalled us to freedom. But if God does not enslave what is free, who is he that sets his own power above God’s?”

“Christ is the artist, tenderly wiping away all the grime of sin that disfigures the human face and restoring God’s image to its full beauty.

“Just as at sea those who are carried away from the direction of the harbor bring themselves back on course by a clear sign, on seeing a tall beacon light or some mountain peak coming into view, so Scripture may guide those adrift on the sea of the life back into the harbor of the divine will.” 

For when one considers the universe, can anyone be so simple-minded as not to believe that the Divine is present in everything, pervading, embracing and penetrating it?

As no darkness can be seen by anyone surrounded by light, so no trivialities can capture the attention of anyone who has his eyes on Christ.

May we never risk the life of our souls by being resentful or by bearing grudges.

Peace is defined as harmony among those who are divided. When, therefore, we end the civil war within our nature and cultivate peace within ourselves, we become at peace.












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