The stalwarts of the Orthodox faith who defended the Church by building a strong wall of faith when the Church was hit with the storm of heresies from within the Church itself. Along with St Gregory of Nazianzus and St Gregory of Nyssa, St Basil the Great are the Cappadocian fathers of the fourth century who lived in the regions of Cappadocia (now, in the central parts of Turkey), who are well known for their collective theological endeavors in developing and perfecting the Trinitarian theology proposed by St Athanasius the Great (c. 295-373) during the time of the Ecumenical Synods. These church fathers are commemorated on our liturgical calendar on January 1st every year.
St Basil the Great
Basil earned the title of “The Great”, as he was a theologian and intellectual of the first order, also ecclesiastical statesman, organizer and liturgist. He was not only into defending the Orthodox faith, he founded monasteries, hospices, hospitals and so on. His knowledge, teachings, along with his actions and life rose him to the title of The Great.
Basil was born in 330 at Caesarea in Cappadocia. He came from a wealthy and pious family which gave a number of saints to the church, including his mother St Emily, grandmother St Macrina the Elder, sister St Macrina the Younger and brothers saints Gregory of Nyssa and Peter of Sebaste.
Basil spent the first years of his life on an estate belonging to his parents at the River Iris, where he was raised under the supervision of his mother Emilia and grandmother Macrina. Received his initial education under the supervision of his father, and then he studied under the finest teachers in Caesarea, and it was here that he made the acquaintance of St Gregory the Theologian. Later, Basil was transferred to a school at Constantinople, where he listened to eminent orators and philosophers. To complete his education Basil went to Athens, the centre of classical enlightenment.
After a four or five year stay at Athens, Basil had mastered all the available disciplines, possessing profound knowledge in astronomy, mathematics and medicine, he was a ship fully laden with learning, to the extent permitted by human nature. It was at Athens that he seriously began to think of religion, and resolved to seek out the most famous hermit saints in Syria and Arabia, in order to learn from them how to attain enthusiastic piety and how to keep his body under submission by asceticism. On returning to Cappadocia, he decided to do as they did. He distributed his wealth to the needy, then settled on the opposite side of the river not far from his mother Emilia and sister Macrina, gathering around him monks living a coenobitic life. He was ordained priest of the Church at Caesarea in 365. In 370, Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, died, and Basil was chosen to succeed him. It was then that his great powers were called into action. With all his might he resisted the emperor Valens, who strove to introduce Arianism into his diocese, kept his flock in strong faith without letting them fall into the clutches of the evil forces.
To keep the faith steadfast, he preached daily, and often twice, in the morning and in the evening. During this time St Basil composed his Liturgy. He wrote a work “On the Six Days of Creation” (Hexaemeron) and another on the Prophet Isaiah in sixteen chapters, yet another on the Psalms, and also a second compilation of monastic rules. St Basil wrote also three books “Against Eunomius,” an Arian teacher who, with the help of Aristotelian concepts, had presented the Arian dogma in philosophic form, converting Christian teaching into a logical scheme of rational concepts.
Basil celebrated the church services almost every day. He was particularly concerned about the strict fulfilling of the Canons of the Church, and took care that only worthy individuals should enter into the clergy. He incessantly made the rounds of his own church, lest anywhere there be an infraction of Church discipline, and setting aright any unseemliness. At Caesarea, Basil built two monasteries, with a church in honor of the Forty Martyrs whose relics were buried there. He used all his personal wealth and the income from his church for the benefit of the destitute; in every centre of his diocese he built a poor-house; and at Caesarea, a home for wanderers and the homeless.
Sickly since youth, the toil of teaching, his life of abstinence, and the concerns and sorrows of pastoral service took their toll on him. St Basil died on January 1, 379 at age 49.
St Gregory of Nazianzus
St Gregory of Nazianzus, also known as Gregory the Theologian was the Archbishop of Constantinople, a great Father and teacher of the Church, was born into a Christian family of eminent lineage in the year 329, at Arianzos, not far from the city of Cappadocian Nazianzus. His father, also named Gregory, was Bishop of Nazianzus. His pious mother, St Nonna, prayed to God for a son, vowing to dedicate him to the Lord. Her prayer was answered, and she named her child Gregory.
Gregory had his basic education from his uncle St Amphilochius, an experienced teacher of rhetoric, he then studied in the schools of Nazianzus, Caesarea in Cappadocia, and Alexandria. Then the saint decided to go to Athens to complete his education.
In 358, returned to his parents at Nazianzus. At thirty-three years of age, he received baptism from his father, who had been appointed Bishop of Nazianzus. Against his will, Gregory was ordained to the holy priesthood by his father. 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 Basil the Great made Gregory bishop of the city of Sasima, a small town between Caesarea and Tyana. However, St Gregory remained at Nazianzus in order to assist his dying father, and he guided the flock of this city for a while after the death of his father in 374.
Upon the death of Patriarch Valentus of Constantinople in the year 378, a council of bishops invited St Gregory to help the Church of Constantinople, which at this time was ravaged by heretics. Obtaining the consent of St Basil the Great, St Gregory came to Constantinople to combat heresy. In the year 379 he began to serve and preach in a small church called
St Gregory’s literary works (orations, letters, poems) show him as a worthy preacher of the truth of Christ. The first of St Gregory’s Five Theological Orations is devoted to arguments against the Eunomians for their blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. The Orations of St Gregory are not limited only to this topic. He also wrote Panegyrics on saints, Festal Orations, two invectives against Julian the Apostate, and various orations on other topics. In all, forty-five of St Gregory’s orations have been preserved.
At the Second Ecumenical Council in 381, St Gregory was chosen as Patriarch of Constantinople. After the death of Patriarch Meletius of Antioch, St Gregory presided at the Council. Hoping to reconcile the West with the East, he offered to recognize Paulinus as Patriarch of Antioch. St Gregory decided to resign his office for the sake of peace in the Church.
The saint, zealous for the truth of Christ, continued to affirm Orthodoxy through his letters and poems, while remaining in the wilderness. He died on January 25, 389, and is honored with the title “Theologian,” also given to the holy Apostle and Evangelist John. St Gregory was buried at Nazianzus. In the year 950, his holy relics were transferred to Constantinople into the church of the Holy Apostles. Later on, a portion of his relics was transferred to Rome.
St Gregory of Nyssa
St Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa, was a younger brother of St Basil the Great. Having received an excellent education, he was at one time a teacher of rhetoric. In the year 372, he was consecrated by St Basil the Great as bishop of the city of Nyssa in Cappadocia.
St Gregory was an ardent advocate for Orthodoxy, and he fought against the Arian heresy with his brother St Basil. Gregory was persecuted by the Arians, by whom he was falsely accused of improper use of church property, and thereby deprived of his See and sent to Ancyra.
After the death of the emperor Valens (378), St Gregory was restored to his cathedra and was joyously received by his flock. When his brother, St Basil the Great passed away in 379, he delivered a funeral oration for him, and completed St Basil’s study of the six days of Creation, the Hexaemeron. That same year St Gregory participated in the Council of Antioch against heretics who refused to recognize the perpetual virginity of the Mother of God.
Others at the opposite extreme, who worshipped the Mother of God as being God Herself, were also denounced by the Council. He visited the churches of Arabia and Palestine, which were infected with the Arian heresy, to assert the Orthodox teaching about the Most Holy Theotokos. On his return journey St Gregory visited Jerusalem and the Holy Places.
In the year 381 St Gregory was one of the chief figures of the Second Ecumenical Council, convened at Constantinople against the heresy of Macedonius, who incorrectly taught about the Holy Spirit. At this Council, on the initiative of St Gregory, the Nicean Creed was completed.
St Gregory of Nyssa was a fiery defender of Orthodox dogmas and a zealous teacher of his flock, a kind and compassionate father to his spiritual children, and their intercessor before the courts. He was distinguished by his magnanimity, patience and love of peace.
Having reached old age, St Gregory of Nyssa died soon after the Council of Constantinople. Together with his great contemporaries, saints Basil the Great and Gregory the Theologian, St Gregory of Nyssa had a significant influence on the Church life of his time. His sister, St Macrina, wrote to him: “You are renowned both in the cities, and gatherings of people, and throughout entire districts. Churches ask you for help.” St Gregory is known in history as one of the most profound Christian thinkers of the fourth century. Endowed with philosophical talent, he saw philosophy as a means for a deeper penetration into the authentic meaning of divine revelation. He has been called “the Father of Fathers.”
These fathers are not just defenders of faith, they even dedicated their lives for the mission works proposed and given by Christ. They used all their knowledge and resources for the upliftment of the Church, at a time when the Church needed such vibrant leadership and strength. If they hadn’t fought for the True Faith, the real Orthodoxy would have been a myth in our understandings, which they broke down for us to understand it better and easier. May the memory of the Fathers be for our blessings and guidance!
Fr Jacob Thomas