Beaten by a Dream
He was a teen, and sometimes, teenage boys just want to have fun. So on the first warm spring day, Gregory made plans to pick up a couple of his friends from the village, some eight miles away, and go for a hike along the river and maybe do some fishing, or perhaps some hunting. They would camp under the stars and come back the next day.
It wasn’t to be. Just before he left, his mother, Emmelia, asked him if, instead, he would attend a memorial service for the forty martyrs of Sebaste. Reluctantly, he agreed and sent his servant down to the village to let his friends know they’d have to put the hike off for a day.
Gregory wasn’t a lukewarm Christian, by any means. He loved the liturgy, prayed regularly, and loved God with all his heart. And with his family, he couldn’t be someone who paid only lip service to the faith. His mother’s father had been martyred, his father’s mother, whom he barely remembered, had also suffered for the faith, and had been a completely dedicated Christian during her lifetime. It was she who taught him his first prayers, and helped him memorize the Psalms, sitting on her lap and eating figs and sugared dates as a reward for perfect recitations. His own mother had wanted to take vows of virginity, and he remembered the stories she and Papa had told about men who had threatened to kidnap her if she wouldn’t marry them, because of her beauty, so she’d agreed to marry someone she found appealing, to protect her from the threat. But she was as devout as she’d always been and had raised all her children to love and honour God. His older sister, Macrina, was an avowed virgin, and had been since she was twelve. So, no, he wasn’t a nominal Christian at all. He just wanted to go hiking and camping with his friends. And he’d been up late the night before, reading and studying the Greek philosophers.
The service started at sundown, and went on, and on, and on. Gregory did his best to pay attention, but he’d been tired to start with, and as the service wore on, his attention wandered. The worship space in the martyrion grew stuffy and hot with the family and the servants crowded in, the braziers burning and the incense rising. He daydreamed and dozed, until with a start, he saw the door of the martyrion swing open, and men, naked and blue from the cold night filed into the space at the back of the room. They held wooden rods in their frozen hands. So many of them. Gregory counted as they came across the marble floor. Forty. Could it be? He rubbed his eyes.
He must be dreaming! Surely he wasn’t holy enough for a vision of the very martyrs they were commemorating in this service! He stood and backed away as the men came closer to him, realizing that the prayers and chanting had ceased, the charcoal braziers had gone out and the building had emptied. He was alone with these men. They surrounded him and began to beat him with the rods. Covering his head, he fell to the floor and rolled up as tightly as he could.
“We died for love of Christ,” said one of the men. The voice was dull and hollow, filled with sorrow.
“You sleep through the prayers to God,” said another.
“Wake and give thanks that you may pray in peace, unafraid of the torment we suffered gladly,” said a third.
“Give glory to the Maker of all, and remember our example. Give your life to God, live for him and serve him all the days you live and breathe!” exclaimed another.
“I will, I will!” Gregory cried. “Stop, please. I will serve God, I will keep your memory fresh and I will honour you all my life for your steadfast faith!”
The men vanished, and with a start, Gregory awoke, staring around the room, heart pounding, sweat rolling down his face and soaking his tunic. The chants continued, the braziers glowed and the scent of incense filled his head. He stood, shook himself and joined in the singing with a renewed heart.
St. Gregory of Nyssa kept his promise to the forty martyrs. He honoured them all his life, and he went on to serve God faithfully and well. Even when he left the monastic life for a secular career in Caesarea as a teacher of rhetoric, he loved and worshipped God. Read more about his life on our reference page.
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