Today we celebrate the feast of Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen. They are Doctors of the Church, and their theological writings, homilies, poems and letters are great not only for study, but also for spiritual reading. You can find English translations of many of their works for free online.
In the Liturgy of the Hours – which, with the Mass, constitutes the Church’s official public prayer – we find an excerpt of St. Gregory Nazianzen’s famous funeral oration in praise of St. Basil, whose funeral he was unable to attend due to his own poor health. It is an impressive speech, but what is more important than the eloquent words is the context in which it happened.
Both were from solidly Christian families, from Asia Minor. They met at school in Caesarea and became friends, and after going their separate ways, met again at Athens to study rhetoric, and renewed their friendship. They explored religious life, visiting monastic communities, praying, working and learning. No doubt, they both had exciting and bright futures ahead of them. Yet as wonderful as this all was, their friendship was not without difficulties. The emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Flavius Julius Valens Augustus, was an Arian, and made real efforts to spread Arianism – the belief that Jesus Christ is not equally divine with God the Father, but is a creature – throughout the empire.
Emperor Valens quickly recognized that St. Basil was a formidable opponent with a lot of influence, so he decided to divide his ecclesiastical province of Cappadocia, for which St. Basil was Metropolitan Bishop, and appoint an Arian bishop for the newly divided half. In his zeal for the struggle against Arianism, St. Basil decided he would strengthen his influence by creating a new diocese and get his friend St. Gregory Nazianzen to be its first bishop. Unfortunately, St. Gregory never liked the idea, and only after 2 years of having been made Bishop of this new diocese by St. Basil, St. Gregory eventually left the new diocese in frustration. After this episode, no one has found any traces of correspondence between St. Gregory and St. Basil until their respective deaths.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” [John 13:34].
I heard a powerful homily on the feast of the Holy Family, and what stuck out to me was the theme of forgiveness. The priest said – “If we only forgive those who we think deserve our forgiveness, God’s work is never going to be done.” Forgiveness is one way we can live out Christ’s new commandment to love one another, the commandment which distinguishes Christians from all other religions who share the old commandment with us – the “golden rule”. I’m sure you’d agree that there is no shortage of people who annoy, offend, or even hurt us on a daily basis. While it’s easy, it’s not enough just to shrug off those who wrong us, forgetting isn’t quite the same as forgiving. “Your sins are forgotten,” said Jesus to no one in the Gospels ever. Instead, Jesus forgave sins, and commanded us also to forgive those who sin against us. Forgiving is a much more personal act. It’s a choice to continue loving someone despite what they have done to us. And even if people don’t want or accept our forgiveness, it is still a great feat of love for us to forgive them in our hearts, and the very act transforms us as well. Because Christian forgiveness is not just our own doing, rather, it flows from the Cross of Christ, “for He is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility” [Ephesians 2:14]. It’s entirely possible that St. Basil never actually apologized to St. Gregory.