CHAPTER XIV: ST. BASIL AND ST. GREGORY OF NAZIANZUM; COUNCIL OF CONSTANTINOPLE, PART I (AD 373-381)
Although St. Athanasius was now dead, God did not fail to raise up champions for the true faith. Three of the most famous of these were natives of Cappadocia--namely, Basil, his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and his friend Gregory of Nazianzum. But although Gregory of Nyssa was a very good and learned man, and did great service to the truth by his writings, there was nothing remarkable in the story of his life; so I shall only tell you about the other two.
Basil and Gregory of Nazianzum were both born about the year 329. Basil was of a noble Christian family. Gregory's father had belonged to a strange sect called Hypsistarians, whose religion was a mixture of Jewish and heathen notions, but he had been converted from it by his wife, Nonna, who was a very pious and excellent woman, and, before his son's birth, he had risen to be bishop of Nazianzum.
The two youths became acquainted at school in Cappadocia, and, when they were afterwards sent to the famous schools of Athens, they grew into the closest friendship. They lived and read and walked together: Gregory says that they had all things common, and that it was as if they had only one soul in two bodies. Athens was an excellent place for learning all that the wise men of this world could teach, and therefore students flocked to it from distant countries. But it was a dangerous place for Christian young men; for the teachers were heathen philosophers, and knew well how to entangle them in arguments, so that many of the pupils, who did not rightly understand the grounds of their faith, were deceived into giving it up. Thus, at the very time when Basil and Gregory were at Athens, Julian was also there, sucking up the heathen notions which led to so much evil when he afterwards became emperor. But the two Cappadocians kept themselves clear from all the snares of "philosophy and vain deceit" (Coloss. ii. 8); and although they were the foremost of all the students in Athens for learning, and might have hoped to make a great figure in the world by their talents, they resolved to give up all worldly ambition, and to devote themselves to the ministry of the Church.
So they were both ordained to be clergymen, and their friendship continued as warm as ever. (Gregory did many kind offices to Basil, and at length, when the archbishopric of Caesarea, the chief city of Cappadocia, fell vacant, Gregory had a great share in getting his friend chosen to it. Basil was now in a very high office, with many bishops under him; and he had become noted as one of the chief defenders of the Catholic faith. And when the emperor Valens set up Arianism in all other parts of his dominions, Basil remained at his post, and kept the Church of Caesarea free from the heresy. Valens came into Cappadocia, and was angry that, while his wishes were obeyed everywhere else, Basil should hold out against them: so he sent an officer named Modestus to Caesarea, and ordered him to require the archbishop to submit, on pain of being turned out. Modestus told Basil his errand, and threatened him with loss of his property, torture, banishment, and even death, in case of his refusal. But Basil was not at all daunted. "Think of some other threat," he said, "for these have no influence on me. As for loss of property, I run no risk, for I have nothing to lose except these mean garments and a few books. Nor does a Christian care for banishment, since he has no home upon earth, but makes every country his own, or rather, he looks on the whole world as God's, and on himself as God's pilgrim upon earth. Neither can tortures harm me, for my body is so weak that the first blow would kill me; and death would be a gain, for it would but send me the sooner to Him for whom I live and labour, and to whom I have long been journeying."
Modestus returned to his master with an account of what had been said, and Valens himself soon after came to Caesarea. But when he went to the cathedral on the festival of the Epiphany, and saw Basil at the head of his clergy, and witnessed their solemn service, he was struck with awe. He wished to make an offering, as the custom was, but none of the clergy went to receive his gift, and he almost fainted at the thought of being thus rejected from the Church, as if he had no part or lot in it. He afterwards sent for Basil, and had some conversation with him, and the end of the affair was, that he not only left Basil in possession of his see, but bestowed a valuable estate on a hospital which the archbishop had lately founded.
While Basil had risen, by Gregory's help, to be an archbishop, Gregory himself was still a presbyter. He would not have taken even this office but that his father ordained him to it almost by force; and he had a great dread of being raised to the high and difficult office of a bishop. But Basil, for certain reasons, wished to establish a bishop in a little town called Sasima, and he fixed on his old friend, without, perhaps, thinking so much as he ought to have thought, whether the place and the man were likely to suit each other. The old bishop of Nazianzum did all that he could to overcome his son's unwillingness, and Gregory was consecrated; but he thought himself unkindly used, and complained much of Basil's behaviour in the matter.
After a time, Basil and other leaders of the "orthodox" (that is, of those who "held the right faith") urged Gregory to undertake a mission to Constantinople, and he agreed to go, in the hope of being able to do some good (AD 378). The bishopric of that great city had been in the hands of Arians for nearly forty years, and although there were many people of other sects there, the orthodox were but a handful. Gregory, when he began his labours, found that there was a strong feeling against him and his doctrine. He could not get the use of any church, and was obliged to hold his service in a friend's house. He was often attacked by the Arian mob; he was stoned; he was carried before the magistrates on charges of disturbing the peace; the house which he had turned into a chapel was broken into by night, and shocking outrages were committed in it. But the good Gregory held on notwithstanding all this, and, after a while, his mild and grave character, his eloquent and instructive preaching, and the piety of his life, wrought a great change, so that his little place of worship became far too small to hold the crowds which flocked to it. While Gregory was thus employed, Basil died, in the year 380.
Both parts of the empire were now again under orthodox princes. Valens had lost his life in wars without leaving any children (AD 378), so that Valentinian's sons, Gratian and Valentinian the Second, were heirs to the whole. But Gratian felt the burden of government too much for himself, a lad of nineteen, and for his little brother, who was but seven years old; and he gave up the East to a brave Spaniard, named Theodosius, in the hope that he would be able to defend it.
Theodosius came to Constantinople in the year 380, and found things in the state which has just been described. He turned the Arian bishop and his clergy out of the churches, and gave Gregory possession of the cathedral. Gregory knew that the emperor wished to help the cause of the true faith, and he did as Theodosius wished; but he was very sad and uneasy at being thus thrust on a flock of which the greater part as yet refused to own him.
Theodosius then called a council, which met at Constantinople in the year 381, and is reckoned as the second General Council (the Council of Nicaea having been the first). One act of this council was to add to the Nicene Creed some words about the Holy Ghost, by way of guarding against the errors of a party who were called Macedonians after one Macedonius, who had been bishop of Constantinople, for these people denied the true doctrine as to the Holy Ghost, although they had given up the errors of Arius as to the Godhead of our blessed Lord.
But afterwards, some of the bishops who attended the council fell to disputing about the choice of a bishop for Antioch; and Gregory, who tried to persuade them to agree, found that, instead of heeding his advice, they all fell on him, and they behaved so shamefully to him that he gave up his bishopric, which, indeed, he had before wished to do. Theodosius was very sorry to lose so good a man from that important place; but Gregory was glad to get away from its troubles and anxieties to the quiet life which he best loved. He took charge of the diocese of Nazianzum (which had been vacant since his father's death, some years before), until a regular bishop was appointed to it; and he spent his last days in retirement, soothing himself with religious poetry and music. One of the holiest men of our own Church, Bishop Ken (the author of the Morning and Evening Hymns), used often to compare himself with St. Gregory of Nazianzum; for Bishop Ken, too, was driven from his bishopric in troubled times, and, in the poverty, sickness, and sorrow of his last years, he, too, used to find relief in playing on his lute, and in writing hymns and other devout poems.
Theodosius was resolved to establish the right faith, according as the council had laid it down. But it seems that at one time some of the bishops were afraid lest an Arian, named Eunomius, should get an influence over his mind, and should persuade him to favour the Arians. And there is a curious story of the way in which one of these bishops who was a homely old man, from some retired little town, tried to show the emperor that he ought not to encourage heretics. On a day when a number of bishops went to pay their respects at court, this old man, after having saluted the emperor very respectfully, turned to his eldest son, the young emperor Arcadius, and stroked his head as if he had been any common boy. Theodosius was very angry at this behaviour, and ordered that the bishop should be turned out. But as the officers of the palace were hurrying him towards the door, the old man addressed the emperor, and told him that as he was angry on account of the slight offered to the prince, even so would the Heavenly Father be offended with those who should refuse to His Son the honours which they paid to Himself. Theodosius was much struck by this speech; he begged the bishop's forgiveness, and showed his regard for the admonition by keeping Eunomius and the rest of the Arians at a distance.
The emperor then made some severe laws, forbidding all sorts of sects to hold their worship, and requiring them to join the Catholic Church. Now this was, no doubt, a great mistake; for it is impossible to force religious belief on people; and although Christian princes ought to support the true faith by making laws in favour of it, it is wrong to make men pretend a belief which they do not feel in their hearts. But Theodosius had not had the same opportunities which we have since had of seeing how useless such laws are, and what mischief they generally do; so that, instead of blaming him, we must give him credit for acting in the way which he believed most likely to promote the glory of God and the good of his subjects. And, although some of his laws seem very severe, there is reason to think that these were never acted on.
But about the same time, in another part of the empire, which had been usurped by one Maximus, an unhappy man, named Priscillian, and some of his companions, were put to death on account of heresy. Such things became sadly too common afterwards; but at the time the punishment of Priscillian struck all good men with horror. St. Martin, Bishop of Tours, who was called "The Apostle of the Gauls", did all that he could to prevent it. St. Ambrose (of whom you will hear more in the next chapter; would not, on any account, have to do with the bishops who had been concerned in it; and the chief of these bishops was afterwards turned out of his see, and died in banishment. We may do well to remember that this first instance of punishing heresy with death, was under the government of an usurper, who had made his way to power by rebellion and murder.