The Feast of St Gregory of Nyssa
Today’s saint is one of those endearing souls who take a while before they get their act together. Gregory of Nyssa was born at Caesarea in what is now Turkey around the year 334, the younger brother of
St Basil, and in his youth, he was a Christian mainly because his family was Christian.
When he was twenty years old, the courage of the martyrs made a big impression on Gregory’s faith. He became a practicing Christian and wanted to become a rhetorician like his father. But his strong-minded brother Basil had other ideas. Basil was engaged in a struggle with the Arian Emperor Valens, and as part of his struggle, Basil made poor Gregory become Bishop of Nyssa, which was a small one-horse town ten miles from Caesarea. Gregory knew perfectly well that it wasn’t going to work, and he described his ordination later in life as the most miserable day of his life. He didn’t have some of the qualities you need as a bishop – or for that matter, as an abbot – qualities such as tact and understanding, and he had no sense of the value of money. That led to a false accusation that he was embezzling Church funds, and so Gregory went into hiding for two years and didn’t return to his diocese until the emperor Valens died in 378.
Although he resented being dominated by his brother, Gregory was shocked by Basil’s death in 379. Several months later, he got another shock: his dear sister Macrina was dying. Gregory went back to Annesi and talked with her for two days about death, and the soul, and the meaning of the resurrection. Choking with asthma, Macrina died in her brother’s arms, and this deeply affected him
The death of his brother and sister in so short a time was a major blow to Gregory, but out of this darkness emerged a profound spirituality. It freed him to develop as a deeper and richer philosopher and theologian. He gives us a glimpse of his contemplative and mystical nature in his Life of Moses, and again in his Commentary on the Song of Songs. In these works, Gregory sees God not as an object to be understood, but as a mystery to be loved.
In 381, Gregory attended the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople, where he was honored as the “pillar of the Church”. And yet it’s not because he was a great theologian that we honor him today as a saint. Sanctity is not the result of intellectual efforts. It is union with Truth with a capital T. And this union with truth comes not from knowledge but from love. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Love, took Gregory with all his resentments and lack of social graces, his need to know and to love, and guided him to final union with God. His intellectual gifts became a precious instrument in the hands of Divine Love.
May we too allow ourselves to be led by the Holy Spirit, so that our love for God may lead to an ever deeper knowledge of him.