Saints Basil and Gregory Nazianzus: Doctors of the Church

Two of the most notable saints deserving special attention by queer Christians are St Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia, and his dear friend St Gregory “the theologian”, Bishop of  Nazianzus, whose relationship was of such great intimacy that they are frequently described as having shared “one soul in two bodies”. Today, January 2nd, the Church celebrates their joint feast day.

 “Then not only did I feel full of veneration for my great Basil because of the seriousness of his morals and the maturity and wisdom of his speeches, but he induced others who did not yet know him to be like him…. The same eagerness for knowledge motivated us…. This was our competition: not who was first but who allowed the other to be first. It seemed as if we had one soul in two bodies”

(The phrase was used by Gregory  himself, after the death of his friend Basil, and has been regularly repeated across the sixteen centuries since by many others,  including Pope Benedict).

Both are regarded by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches as Doctors of the Faith, and the Eastern Orthodox churches  have further honoured them, together with John Chrysostom, with the title “Great Hierarch”.

Basil (330 –  379) and Gregory (c. 329 –  389 or 390) first met and became friends at school in Caesarea,  and resumed their friendship in 352, when they were completing their schooling together in Athens.

Basil  came from a family of saints. His parents were St. Basil the Elder and St. Emmelia of Cappadocia (in modern Turkey). Some of his brothers and sisters are also honored among the saints. After completing his own schooling, Basil opened a school of oratory, and practised law before deciding to become a monk. He first retired to Pontus to lead the life of a hermit; but finding that Gregory could not join him there, came and settled first at Tiberina (near Gregory’s own home), then at Neocaesarea, in Pontus, where he lived in holy seclusion for some years, and gathered round him a brotherhood of cenobites, among whom his friend Gregory was for a time included. During the next few years, Gregory and Basil together edited some of the exegetical works of Origen. Gregory also helped his friend in the compilation of his famous monastic rule, which became the most enduring rule in the Eastern monastic tradition.

After founding several more monasteries, Basil accepted ordination, and in 373, was appointed bishop of Caesaria. His great learning, eloquence and charity earned him the title of “the Great” during his lifetime, and Doctor of the Church after his death. Gregory returned to Nazianzus, where his father, the local bishop, pressured him to accept ordination, which he did only reluctantly.

However, when the elder Gregory wished to make him a bishop, he fled to join his friend Basil in Pontus. St Basil had organized a monastery in Pontus and had written to Gregory inviting him to come. St Gregory remained with St Basil for several years. In Gregory finally accepted the episcopal office, and was ordained Bishop of Sasima by his friend Basil.

Other then the simple fact of their intimacy, a feature that I find helpful for the position of modern lesbian or gay Catholics, is Gregory’s response to religious hostility. As I have seen repeatedly at this site, and many more LGBT Christians have experienced, the religious fundies can react to explorations of faith from a queer perspective with a great deal of fury, and even accusations of heresy. In the fourth century, the divisions in the Church were not over sexuality or relationships, but about the nature of God, and the controversy over the Arian heresy. Gregory’s response to his attackers is worth pondering:

When Gregory and his congregation had been attacked in their church, while celebrating our Lord’s baptism, by the Arian rabble of Constantinople, in consequence of the report that they were Tritheists, Gregory heard that Theodorus was about to appeal for redness to Theodosius, whereupon the good man wrote that while punishment might possibly prevent recurrence of such conduct, it was better to give an example of long-suffering.

“Let us,” said he, “overcome them by gentleness, and win them by piety; let their punishment be found in their own consciences, not in our resentment. Dry not up the fig-tree that may yet bear fruit.” The Seventh General Council called him “Father of Fathers.”

In his reflection on Gregory for a general audience of August 8th, 2007, Pope Benedict notes that during the Second Ecumenical Council of the Church in 381, Gregory was elected Bishop of Constantinople, and presided over the council:

but he was challenged straightaway by strong opposition, to the point that the situation became untenable. These hostilities must have been unbearable to such a sensitive soul.

What Gregory had previously lamented with heartfelt words was repeated: “We have divided Christ, we who so loved God and Christ! We have lied to one another because of the Truth, we have harboured sentiments of hatred because of Love, we are separated from one another” (Orationes 6: 3; SC 405: 128).

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