Saint Gregory of Nyssa
Born into the one of the most illustrious Christian families of late antiquity, Saint Gregory of Nyssa was the younger brother of Saint Marcina and Saint Basil the Great. He joined the family in about 335 AD, the middle child of the nine living children of his mother.
Like his older brothers, Naucratius and Basil, Gregory was educated first by his grandmother, Macrina the Elder. His father, who taught Basil, died before Gregory was old enough to begin learning from his father, a noted lawyer and teacher. It’s not known if Gregory followed his brothers to Caesarea, at the appropriate age, to continue his education, or if he stayed home and was taught by his sister, Macrina. Given that he referred to her throughout his life as “the teacher,” it’s possible that for some time he did remain with the family on their estate at Annesi, about a day’s journey from Neocaesarea, the city of his birth.
In approximately 351, his elder brother Naucratius abandoned a promising career in law and rhetoric to become a monastic on the family estate, somewhat removed from the main buildings where the rest of the family lived. Gregory would have been in his mid teens at the time, and undoubtedly was greatly influenced by Naucratius’s experiment, that so closely resembled their elder sister’s way of life. Macrina had become an avowed virgin at twelve, and had led the family in spiritual endeavours ever since. After an experience during a memorial service for the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste that he’d attended at his mother’s urging, Gregory was baptized and became a lector (reader).
Five years later, in 356, tragedy struck when Naucratius was drowned in a fishing accident on the fast-flowing Iris river. His death shook the family and may have been part of the reason Basil abruptly left Athens and his studies there. After stopping at the family estate, Basil continued to Caesarea where, for a short time, Gregory became his student. When Basil left to travel through Syria, Palestine and Egypt, Gregory remained in Caesarea, continuing his studies in philosophy, medicine and science as well as rhetoric and law.
Basil returned to Annesi, the family estate, in 358, anxious to begin his own experiments in a monastic life, and at some point, perhaps that same year, Gregory joined him on the estate lands. It may well have been the same location in which Naucratius had lived before his untimely death. It seemed certain at this point that Gregory had decided on a career in the church, and would be ordained to the priesthood when he turned 30, in about 365.
However, in the early to mid 360s, Gregory suddenly left the estate and monasticism to begin a career in Caesearea of teacher and rhetorician. It was something of a scandal. There were rumours that he’d left the faith entirely, which wasn’t true, but the entire family, as well as close friends, protested against his decision. Saint Gregory of Nazianzus wrote Gregory a letter, pleading with him to leave his “decline, . . ., to the lower life” and return to that life that many saw as the higher calling of monastic and priest.
It’s likely that he married at some point during his years in Caesarea, and that his wife died, possibly in childbirth, during this time as well. Basil, by 365, was also in Caesarea, and was the assistant to the bishop there. In 370, Basil was elected metropolitan bishop amid great controversy. Many of the other bishops opposed his nomination, including Basil and Gregory’s maternal uncle.
Distressed at the family rift, Gregory attempted to reconcile the two by forging letters from their uncle to Basil. It wasn’t until Basil met the uncle face to face that he discovered that the letter was a fake. But Gregory was determined and sent two more false letters, upon which Basil sent him a strongly worded letter back. “I write these words to confront your simplicity, which in other circumstances I consider fitting to Christians but which ill accords in the present situation, in order that you may at least guard yourself for the future and spare me; because—for I must speak frankly with you—you are no trustworthy minister in such affairs,” he writes to his brother. The two were eventually reconciled, and Basil was pacified enough to ask Gregory to write a treatise “On Virginity” for him. When the diocese of Cappadocia was split in two later that year, Basil named Gregory as the bishop of Nyssa, a newly created see in a quiet and unpretentious backwater city, in order to strengthen the Orthodox presence in the area against the Arian threat.
Gregory was not happy about the appointment, as Basil mentions in a letter, but he did the job faithfully and was, by all accounts, a good and beloved bishop. Historians for a long time believed that Gregory was less skilled an administrator than perhaps is actually true, because shortly after his election, charges of embezzlement were brought against him in 375 or 376, as well as questions about the validity of his consecration. The truth was that this was political and personal revenge, aimed at Basil, but using Gregory as the means. Both Basil and Gregory were staunch Nicene Orthodox, and were vocal and active in their defense of the faith. The emperor, Valens, was Arian, and the administrator of the area, one Demosthenes, had a few years before been publicly humiliated in front of the emperor by Basil. The result was that Gregory was summoned (arrested, not to put too fine a point on it) to Ancyra to answer the charges, but disappeared on the trip. Nevertheless, he was formally exiled from his see, and nothing was heard of him until 378 when, shortly before his death, Valens extended an amnesty to exiled bishops. It’s unknown, to this day, where Gregory stayed during his two-year exile, although it is known that Basil could easily contact him.
Gregory’s homecoming was joyous, both for himself, and for his people. But his joy was short-lived, as his beloved elder brother took ill and died not too long after his return to Nyssa. Less than a year after that, his sister, also very close to him, died as well, and he was left bereft.
A tumultuous period followed, in which he had to put down an Arian plot and uprising in his own diocese and then extricate himself from forcible confinement in Sebasteia. He had traveled there to supervise the election of their new bishop, but in an unprecedented and unforeseen development, Gregory was first acclaimed bishop and then, when he quite rightly protested that he wasn’t allowed to take the see, was taken into custody (whether punitive or protective is unknown) and appealed to the mercy of first the local count and then the governor, both of whom apparently decided he was just what Sebasteia needed. He managed to extricate himself, but how is unknown.
The following years were relatively quiet and possibly the most productive of his life. He issued the first volume of his book, Contra Eunomium, an answer to Eunomius’s Apologia pro Apologia, which was itself a reply to Basil’s Contra Eunomium, published in 364, attended the Council of Constantinople in 381 and spent time traveling in the Middle East, dealing with problems and heresies. He wrote his Life of Macrina, continued his work on the Contra Eunomium, traveled to councils and synods, and dealt with his episcopal duties and obligations. Historian Anna Silvas notes that he occupied a “prominent role as a consultant theologian in the Church of the Eastern empire, specially in the capital and in the churches of eastern Antolia and upper Syria. It is noticeable that his theological writings become increasingly engaged in Christological issues stimulated by the growing success of Apollinarism.”
By 385, Gregory reached what was perhaps the zenith of his career. His work was recognized and honoured, and it was then, during an extended stay in Constantinople, that he was asked by the Emperor to give first the funeral oration on the Emperor’s daughter Pulchiria and, sadly, a few weeks later, another funeral oration on her mother, the Empress Flacilla, a signal honour that marked him as having, in worldly terms, “made it.”
As rewarding as the last few years had been, from 387 on he is seen less and less in the press of things, more and more writing about spiritual development, the growth of faith and inner spiritual development, both for the monastics, caring for them as he had promised Basil, and for all Christians. It was during the last ten years of his life that he wrote the Life of Moses and the series of Homilies on the Song of Songs which his friend, Saint Olympias had requested.
He was present at a synod in Constantinople in 394, but after that he fades from the record, and is presumed to have died shortly after that.
For more information about Saint Gregory of Nyssa, check these books and papers:
Gregory of Nyssa, The Letters, translated and written by Anna Silvas Brill, 2007
Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Series II, Volumes 2 (Sozomon), 5 (Gregory of Nyssa), 7 (Gregory Nazianzus), 8 (Basil)
The Cappadocians by Anthony Meredith SVS Press, 1995
The Asketikon of St. Basil the Great by Anna M. Silvas, Oxford Early Christian Studies, 2005,
Wandering, Begging Monks by DF Craner, University of California Press, 2002
Virgins of God by Susanna Elm, Clarendon Paperbacks, 1994
Macrina the Younger, Philosopher of God, by Anna Silvas, Brepols 2008
Fathers of the Church, St. Gregory Ascetical Works translated by Virginia Wood Callahan, CUA Press, 1967
The Life of St. Macrina by Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, translated by Kevin Corrigan, Peregrina Publishing Company 1996
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